Hockey enthusiasts could tell you a thing or two about Gordie and Mark Howe.
They know all about “Mr. Hockey” and his son, widely considered to be one of the greatest defensemen of all time. They can give you a laundry list of reasons as to why both men were so deserving of their respective Hall of Fame inductions.
But someone very close to them, someone who knows both very well, can’t recall much of their careers.
“To be totally honest, I can’t tell you my grandfather’s or father’s stats. I know from other people that they were both great players, but I never focused on that,” Azia Howe said when asked what it was like growing up so closely to the sport.
Azia was almost ten when the Flyers granted her father free agency and he signed with the Detroit Red Wings after the 1991-1992 season, so she doesn’t remember very much of his career with the organization. But her life never really revolved around hockey, even though she was a member of one of the most infamous hockey families.
What she remembers most of her grandfather and father while growing up was how they always tried their hardest to make time for their families, despite their busy schedules. Gordie and his wife, Colleen — aka “Mrs. Hockey” — would fly in for every family event, regardless of how ‘insignificant’ the event was. They took numerous family vacations, including their last big trip to Hawaii (a place that Azia had told her grandmother she’d always wanted to visit).
Mark would wake up every morning that he was home to have breakfast with Azia and drive her to school so that she didn’t have to take the bus. Those mornings only gave them about fifteen minutes or so of quality time, but Mark always made the effort, knowing how limited his time with his family was thanks to his grueling schedule. And every summer, the Howe family would spend their time on the family boat in Long Beach Island, NJ, making up for quality time lost during the season.
The year of the last lockout, Azia graduated from college and moved to southern New Jersey, taking a job in Center City Philadelphia. She recalls that her father had no idea what to do with himself because he was so used to being busy and not at all used to having so much free time.
“His usual yard work and other ‘chores’ weren’t enough for him, so he started doing everyone’s laundry. After a few shrunk shirts, he was asked to find something else to do!”
But what Azia remembers most about that time was that her father woke up with her every morning before work and they had tea together before he drove her to the train station. It was just like it was when she was in middle school, she said. Despite the fact that Mark always told her that it was easier for her to not have to park, Azia thinks that he just liked having that extra time together.
“And that’s really how my dad was as a father. He loved being with his children more than anything, and would do anything and everything to make us happy.”
The relationship between Azia and her father has always been a close one, and she’s also always been very close to her grandparents. She recalls spending time at their house in Traverse City, Michigan, a house situated on the west bay of Lake Michigan. The family would go sledding in the winter and water skiing and tubing in the summer.
Azia and her grandmother, Colleen, were extremely close, and Azia always considered Colleen to be one of her best friends. While Colleen was sick, Azia started getting closer and closer to her grandfather. She started visiting 3-4 times a year once her grandmother was diagnosed with Pick’s Disease, and she eventually realized that she mostly took those trips to visit her grandfather and make sure he was okay. Over the last few years, they’ve gotten even closer, and she tries to see her grandfather as often as she can.
“It was wonderful seeing him for my dad’s jersey retirement,” Azia said. “I went a few days early and brought my daughter, Ella, to spend some extra time with my dad and grandfather. It was so heartwarming watching him with Ella. As tough as he may have been on the ice, I think he’s the biggest sweetheart.”
The last few months have been incredibly exciting for the Howe family.
After a long wait, Mark was finally inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last November, played in the 2012 Winter Classic Alumni game on New Year’s Eve, and had his number retired by the Flyers back in March.
It was a very emotional time for the family, Azia included. She was 7 1/2 months pregnant when her father was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and remembers that her doctor wasn’t very happy when she asked to fly from Houston to Toronto to be in attendance.
“I told her there was just no way I was going to miss it. To be there to support him and tell him just how proud I am about his career and just for being my father was worth chancing having a Canadian child!”
Azia was at home, four days past due with her daughter, the day of the Winter Classic Alumni Game. She texted her father beforehand to wish him luck (so that he didn’t hurt himself!) and he messaged back that he’d try to get a goal for Ella. Azia almost had to laugh about it, because the last time she’d seen her father play was during the HOF induction weekend, and she hadn’t seen him actually shoot the puck – just pass it. But, sure enough, the next thing she knew, she and her husband were watching and her father scored a goal on a penalty shot.
“The best part about the whole thing was listening to the microphone he had hooked up, and he said, ‘That goal was for my granddaughter, Ella.’ It literally brought tears to my eyes. He saved the puck and scorecard so that Ella will have it when she’s older.”
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our favorite players are more than just athletes – they’re human beings, too. They’re men with families, with priorities that go way beyond those associated with the sport. And despite their skill and talent (and egos that might go along with them), some of them are truly humble men, grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given and those that support them along the way.
Azia’s touching words on her father and grandfather shine a light on such players:
“I think my dad and grandfather are two of the most humble men you will ever meet. They are both more proud of each other’s accomplishments than their own. They are truly the best father and grandfather I could ever ask for, and so that’s the only way I see them – not as hockey players, but as amazing and caring people.”