Murray Howe delivered the eulogy at his father’s funeral last year. He insisted on it.
One of four children of the man they call Mr. Hockey, he gathered his thoughts about the late great Gordie Howe and wrote them down, wanting people to know more about the man he knew.
More than 15,000 people paid their respects at his funeral in Detroit, arriving from around the world. Wayne Gretzky, a close family friend, and former U.S. president Barack Obama issued heartfelt tributes.
It was Father’s Day soon after, and Murray was missing his dad. He says that’s when the thought came to him: Why not get everything he was feeling into a book?
What followed was Nine Lessons I Learned From My Father, a passionate telling of the examples set by Howe, the famous No. 9 of the Red Wings who brought four Stanley Cups to Detroit.
One of the first things you notice about your book is the wonderful picture of you as a youngster, sitting on a hockey players’ bench next to your father. Where and when was that?
It was about 1970, and I was 10 years old at the time. It was a charity game for the March of Dimes at the Olympia Stadium. The game was the Detroit Red Wings against the Detroit Junior Wings, and my brothers Mark and Marty were playing for the Junior Wings. My dad got “traded” to the Junior Wings, so that was one of the first times father and sons played together in a competitive game. My uncle Vern and I played as well, so all the Howes were on the ice at the same time. They had maybe 15,000 people there, and I got to score the winning goal. It was one of the best days of my life.
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a hockey player. I loved playing hockey and when I was young, that’s all we did . . . our home was just all hockey stuff. I thought playing hockey was what I was supposed to do. It was what I wanted to do. I wanted to do everything my dad did. I wanted to be him. I dedicated my early life to hockey, and it lasted until I got cut from the University of Michigan team.
You played hockey, but you wound up a doctor. How did that happen?
(Getting cut at Michigan) opened the door for me into a pre-med curriculum at school. I was playing hockey then, and trying to figure out how I’d fit my curriculum into the hockey schedule. I remember being told: Well, you can’t take that course (because it overlapped with hockey). When I got cut, it opened that door for me. I needed a coach to tell me I should be a doctor and not a hockey player.
What did your dad think when your career path turned to medicine?
I was devastated when I got cut. I dedicated everything to hockey and then failing at it . . . it was devastating, I wished the team good luck on the chalk board and left. I couldn’t even speak. I phoned my parents and they said “Thank God.” My dad said it was okay, and he said he noticed I wasn’t having fun with it at that point in time. I got accepted into medical school and my parents were thrilled. I helped them with their medical issues for the rest of their lives. They ended up arguing over which side of the family I came from. It was funny. But my dad was proud of my medical school acceptance as much as he was proud of his Stanley Cups.
As a doctor, you treated your father. And after six decades in the game, he was banged up and injured more than anyone knew. What did you see in his X-rays, in your examinations of him?
He was a medical marvel. He was born with the perfect athletic body. His endurance was just off the charts. He was also incredibly fierce. He wasn’t afraid of anything. He refused to acknowledge pain, so he pushed his body to places it should never have gone to. He played the last seven years of his career where his wrists were a bag of crumbled bones. It was astonishing.
Why did you want to deliver the eulogy at your father’s funeral?
My brothers and sister do not enjoy public speaking, so I volunteered. I love public speaking, and my father is one of my favourite topics. So, I felt like I could do him justice. I felt like I knew him as well as anyone, the man I knew as a father and as a human being. I felt the man I presented would not be the athlete. It would be the humanitarian.
Why nine lessons in the book?
The nine lessons was borne out of the family’s love of the No. 9. Everything we did in our house was all about nine. We all fought over who’d wear the sweater, the T-shirts, who’d wear No. 9. So I knew the book would have the No. 9 in it. One of the challenges I had was taking the stories down into nine lessons. There was a lot of overlap between being humble and being selfless. There were so many positive virtues in my father and his story, but the central takeaway of the nine lessons was the power of giving. My father was an example of your greatness, and how it doesn’t come from what you achieve athletically but from what you give of yourself to other people. My father was so giving of his time and of himself, moreso than anyone I ever met.
An obvious one here: What’s your fave memory of your father?
The charity game we talked about earlier is one of them, but a lot of my favourite memories are of times I spent alone with my father. I did a fishing trip with him at the same time when I was 10, up in Sault Ste. Marie. Then recently (in 2011) we went to northern Saskatchewan and that trip was amazing. I knew his time left was limited, and it was amazing just to talk to him alone about life and his impact on people. It was phenomenal to connect with my dad. It was a very special moment.
Who were your dad’s heroes?
I think his biggest hero was his mother, Katherine. She was physically strong, emotionally and spiritually strong. Everything you know about Gordie Howe as a gentleman and a humanitarian came from her. He was the male copy of Katherine Howe. I think another hero was his older brother Vern, who played for the Canadian Army team.
Wayne Gretzky was — and is — a friend of the family. You played with him in Junior B, so what was it like to know Wayne then?
I played Junior B with Wayne with the Seneca Nationals. When I was 10, my father was being honoured at a banquet and Wayne was being honoured too. My parents came home and talked about this boy wonder hockey player, and it’s funny, five years later I was on the same team as he was. It’s funny, too, that Wayne was in awe of me . . . he wanted to know everything about my father: what he ate for breakfast, how he trained in the off-season. He just wanted to learn everything he could and to be like Gordie Howe, just like I did.
Do you still play hockey?
I play drop-in hockey in Sylvania, Ohio, I just love it.
Last one: What three people, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?
First, Jesus. I’d love to have breakfast, lunch or dinner with him. And then my father, of course — second and third, my father and my mother. I’d give anything to be able to do that.