VANCOUVER — More than 30 family and friends will help Gordie Howe celebrate his 85th birthday Sunday at a private dinner in Detroit.
It’s a day they will all cherish.
“We’re hoping this will be a nice birthday, and we’ll have a good time with Dad and all,” son Mark said in a recent interview. “His memory loss is getting to the point where it’s almost becoming difficult to do a lot of interaction with Dad. I’m sure this (birthday) will go well, but a year from now, I don’t know what life’s going to bring.
“So we’re going to make the best of it.”
Howe’s family revealed just over a year ago that the hockey legend has a mild form of dementia.
Despite his health issues, Howe began celebrating his milestone birthday in early March when he attended a ceremony at a Vancouver Giants game.
Prior to Sunday’s birthday dinner, he’ll take in a Red Wings-Blackhawks game.
And the events won’t end Sunday.
Howe will make another appearance at a Red Wings game against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday and attend charity hockey games in Calgary, Edmonton and possibly Vancouver in the coming weeks.
But Howe’s family is especially looking forward to seeing him Sunday. He has spent recent months with daughter Cathy at her home in Texas where he enjoys the warm weather. He stays with sons Marty, Murray and Mark at other times during the year.
“I haven’t seen Dad since just before Christmas,” said Mark, the Red Wings’ head pro scout. “Birthday or no birthday, I’m just looking forward to seeing him.”
The same holds true for fans, who still can’t get enough of Mr. Hockey.
“He’s just an easygoing guy,” said Marty. “You can talk to him for five minutes and think you’ve been friends for 30 years. That’s always been his secret, I think.”
Legendary coach Scotty Bowman says Howe is “the original hockey icon.”
“He was a terrific player — size, strength, offence, defence, toughness, ability to score, ability to make plays,” said Bowman. “If you were going to make a model of a hockey player for every category, you wouldn’t be able to get a model better than him.”
Fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Hull fondly remembers seeing his first NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens between Toronto and Howe’s Red Wings and listening to his exploits on an old Philips radio.
Hull said he and Howe “built up a mutual admiration society” because they always knew their confrontations would be clean.
“Some of the greatest games, likely, that I ever played in were in the old Detroit Olympia head-on-head against Howe,” said Hull. “They were the golden years, as far as I was concerned, in the National Hockey League. We had to gear ourselves up every time we went to play against Detroit. It wasn’t (us) playing against the Detroit Red Wings. It was (us) playing against Howe.”
Bowman, known for being gruff and unsentimental, fondly recalled getting the opportunity to coach Howe in the 1980 NHL all-star game.
“That was a big highlight of my career in the NHL, especially an all-star game, to have Gordie in our lineup,” said Bowman, a nine-time Stanley Cup winner.
Dennis Hull first faced Howe nearly 50 years ago when he debuted for the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I met Gordie Howe when I was 19 years old in my first game in the National Hockey League,” said Hull. “It was against the Detroit Red Wings, and he was my hockey hero when I was a kid.”
The hockey legends said Howe serves as an inspiration to other former NHLers as they get older. But Bobby Hull is certain aging doesn’t sit well with Howe.
“Getting old isn’t fun,” he said. “I’d like to find the guy or the girl that coined the phrase that these are the golden years. Like hell they are. Give me back my youth. And, I’m sure he feels the same way.”
Marty says Howe is “slowing down.”
“He’s starting to feel his age like he never did before,” he said.
The public events are good for Howe’s health, said Marty, because the interaction stimulates his brain and he always “perks up.”
“At first, I was thinking, well, we just won’t do as many events and stuff and let him go fishing and down to Florida and relax a little bit,” Marty said. “But he can’t stand still.”
Howe, who Marty says is “strong as a bear,” also remains physically active, fishing in the summer with Mark and practising his putting on the golf course.
“Dad’s kind of a fixture down there,” said Mark. “People look forward to having him down there. But when you have him, you cherish every day. You hope you have more, but you never know, so you take every day and live life to the fullest. That’s your only other option.”
Mark says Howe is looking forward to seeing family at his birthday celebration.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher and tougher on him, but he loves being around his family,” Mark said.
Howe’s late wife Colleen suffered from Pick’s disease, a rare form of dementia. Going through that experience with their mother has helped the Howes deal with their father’s condition.
“What’s gone on, it’s part of life,” said Mark. “When you’re 85 years old, these things happen to people.”