Celebrating Mr. Hockey at 85

Gordie Howe played 2,421 games and had 1,071 goals and 2,589 points in 32 years. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

DETROIT -- About six months ago, Marty Howe received a letter from a hockey fan capturing exactly what Gordie Howe means to the hockey world. The fan had just spent two and a half hours in line to get an autograph from Mr. Hockey.

For the 21st time.

Every single time he met the Hall of Famer, the fan wrote, Howe made him feel like a million dollars. It was always worth the wait.

"I hear that stuff all the time," Mark Howe said this week in telling that story. "That, to me, is the important part in trying to protect that."

On Sunday, the lines will form again for another autograph signing with Howe when he is celebrated at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for his birthday. Born on March 31, 1928, Mr. Hockey is turning 85.

The birthday celebration will begin fittingly with a Sunday matinee Original Six showdown between the Blackhawks and Red Wings and continue into the evening when 30 to 35 friends and family, including all four Howe children, will occupy a reserved room at a local seafood and steakhouse.

It should be a memorable day, and sadly, the reality is setting in that it may be one of the last of the great Howe public events. Age and dementia slow for nobody, even the toughest SOB to ever play the game. Physically, he's strong as an ox -- "I still wouldn't want to fight him," jokes Marty -- but any experiences outside interaction with close family are becoming more unpredictable.

"He loves people. He's always liked talking to people and stuff like that. It actually fires him up a little bit, makes him more aware," Marty Howe said. "He puts his game face on. I call it the Gordie Show.

"But there are some days that doesn't even work. We're nearing the end of the appearances."

Which means those celebrating with Howe will make sure to enjoy this weekend a little more, as the Howe family has learned to do every day with their father. Over the last three years, Gordie Howe has spent just one night on his own as his children have dedicated themselves to protecting the final chapter of someone who is a legend to all of us but dad to them.

The everyday experiences are cherished.

Marty tells a great story about a fishing trip a couple years ago at Bartlett Reef near Connecticut. It was Gordie, Marty, the guy running the boat and a few of his buddies -- guys thrilled to be fishing with a legend. Late in the afternoon after a long day, they planned one more lap around before heading home.

"Gordie got a bite, and this time the line just kept going out and out and out," Marty said. "I said, 'Gordie, put your head down and crank. Don't give him any slack.' From then on, he just fought him."

Eight times, the giant striper came up to the boat then dove back down. Eventually, the fish learned a lesson countless hockey players discovered through the decades: Gordie Howe doesn't lose a fight.

It was a 51-pounder. For 36 years, Marty had been fishing that spot and never reeled in a striper that big.

"He always sneaks in the big one," Marty said. "It's got to be the vibe on the line."

Even as he's slowed down, his family still sees his personality and the dry humor.

Gordie has spent the past few months with his daughter, Cathy Purnell, in Lubbock, Texas, where he got to witness his great-grandson's first T-ball game. Brenden was manning the pitching mound when Gordie Howe arrived, and the 6-year-old shouted a hello from the middle of the game. At one point, Brenden fired a ball home and the catcher ducked.

After the game, Gordie made him feel a little better about the play.

"Don't worry about how hard you throw it," Howe said. "As long as they're ducking, you're doing a good job."

Cathy said she has enjoyed every moment of her time in Texas with her father. When he's not with his father, Mark said the phone conversations have increased to the point where they're now almost daily.

"Everyone is trying to get as much time as possible," Cathy said. "We don't know how long it's going to be before he doesn't know who any one of us are."

It's a fear that is all too real for any family that has experienced dementia or Alzheimer's, a disease Gordie Howe and his family continue to work hard raising funds to fight. Howe's wife, Colleen, died in 2009 of Pick's disease, a rare form of dementia.

When Mark was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, Gordie sat in the Great Hall and shared stories about playing with his sons. Some of the oldest memories remain the clearest. In an interview with ESPN.com before Mark Howe's Hall of Fame induction, Gordie was asked what he was most proud to pass to his son.

"Love of the game," Gordie answered. He loved the game, and his son Mark had that same passion.

Now it's a different love. It's the love between a family and its father and grandfather, a bond that will be celebrated Sunday.

Howe's legacy in hockey is secure, one of the greatest to ever play the game, the inspiration for the Gordie Howe Hat Trick. He is a hockey immortal. But talk to the next Howe generation and the impact is more about the person than the player.

"Whatever he did on the ice -- the records and all that are one thing -- but to me he's a far better human being than he was the hockey player," Mark Howe said. "He's just a down-to-earth human being who happened to play hockey. What's important to him now is his family."