Mr. Hockey fights on

Gordie Howe’s sad, bitter scrap with his business partners

Mr. Hockey fights on

Gordie Howe was anxious—and more than a little shaken. He had just parted company with his long-time business manager, Del Reddy, after a heated dispute over Reddy’s salary that had allegedly gotten physical. His firm was in disarray, and now, mere hours before the white-haired hockey legend was supposed to board a plane for a public appearance in Vancouver, the young man Reddy had hired years ago to accompany Howe on such excursions, Aaron Howard, was nowhere to be found. “I’ve called him four or five times,” Howe lamented to his close friend Felix Gatt, worrying the keypad of his cellphone as the two waited in Gatt’s office in Troy, Mich. “He doesn’t answer.”

So Gatt started making some calls of his own, at length getting through to Howard, who tersely informed him that he had resigned. Gatt’s next call went to Howe’s sons Marty and Mark, who understood the importance of their father’s public appearances—even at the age of 80, Mr. Hockey never stands up his fans. Alarmed, the brothers rushed to the scene from their homes in Connecticut and over those next few days in May 2006 scrambled to right the ship of Gordie’s affairs. Marty accompanied his dad to Vancouver, while Mark began sifting through the myriad contracts for Howe’s appearances at corporate events and autograph sessions to figure out where his dad was supposed to go next.

What he found, says Mark, came as a “complete and total shock.” Some of the agreements had been made out not to Howe’s company, Power Play International, but to a firm called Immortal Investments, which was controlled by Reddy and his father, Michael. A well-respected charity established by the Howe family years ago had given way to a mysterious new entity with Reddy and Howard in positions of authority. Meantime, Mark was surprised to learn, Gordie’s share in a successful junior hockey franchise, the Vancouver Giants, had been abruptly sold off. “For the next month, two months, I was in there trying to find out what had gone on,” he recalls. “The more I found out, the more difficult it became.”

The information he gathered would form the basis of a lawsuit alleging that Reddy and Howard had diverted some US$338,000 from Howe’s appearances into their own enterprises. All of this money went to Immortal, the suit claimed, while some smaller, additional amounts from Howe’s appearances went to the new charity. Reddy and Howard countered with their own defamation suit, and after 12 months of wrangling, the two sides settled last fall on the courthouse steps. Their last-minute truce leaves much unresolved: financial terms were not disclosed, and the Howes’ most sensational claims of fraud and conspiracy were never tested at trial. The family was content instead with an injunction restoring control of their father’s name, along with the autographed bric-a-brac that is now his stock in trade.

Still, the court filings afford a view of Gordie Howe’s world in recent years that will dismay his adoring fans. With his wife and former business guru Colleen immobilized by dementia, hockey’s avuncular senior statesman found his affairs in the hands of men she’d trained to run his life. Reddy and Howard described the relationship as “more like family than business.” But behind the scenes, the Howes alleged, Del Reddy had become a domineering, at times volatile figure who on more than one occasion physically assaulted Gordie by shoving him—the last time being during their argument over pay. “This alleged incident between Del Reddy and Gordie Howe supports the plaintiffs’ claim that Del Reddy sought to control Gordie Howe,” wrote Judge Steven Andrews of Michigan’s Oakland County Circuit Court in his decision to allow the allegation into evidence.

Neither the Reddys nor Aaron Howard responded to interview requests, and their lawyer declined to comment on his clients’ behalf. But people who dealt with the Howes during this period told Maclean’s similar stories of Reddy’s formidable temper. Four individuals said they’d been on the receiving end of his tirades; one said Reddy actually began shoving him in anger. Mark Howe, a 22-year pro player who now scouts for the Detroit Red Wings, declined to go into detail about the purported assaults on his father, which were described in court documents as shoving incidents. But he did say the encounter at Howe’s home was pivotal in Reddy’s departure. “If I had a confrontation of any sort like that with [Wings’ owner Mike] Ilitch or [general manager] Kenny Holland,” he said, “my job would be in jeopardy to say the least.”

That Gordie had meekly accepted his wife’s choice of financial caretaker came as no surprise to those familiar with the couple’s storied partnership. For decades, “Mrs. Hockey” had been the engine behind the legend, parlaying her husband’s glory years with the Detroit Red Wings into a contract in the upstart World Hockey Association and a lot more money than many of his fellow stars earned during the same era. When Howe retired in 1980, Colleen set about creating a thriving business marketing his post-career fame to support the family and its charitable causes. Gordie Howe Enterprises became Power Play International, a company dedicated to all things Howe: books, hockey schools, autographed jerseys, bobblehead figurines, signed photos, appearances at golf tournaments and so on.

As the business grew, and age took its toll, Colleen decided she needed help, and in 1995 she settled on a brash young man who had turned up at one of Howe’s book signings. Del Reddy was a cocksure kid with a swash of hair and an all-American smile. He had little experience in sports marketing, but what he lacked in seasoning he made up for in persistence. “He kept calling Colleen saying, ‘You’re not doing this right, you’re not doing that right,’ ” recalls Gatt, whose printing company handles much of the material the Howes sell. “Finally, Colleen gave him a shot. And he did a good job for a while.”

It was about this time that Colleen’s memory began faltering, and in 2002, Gordie announced that she had been diagnosed with Pick’s disease, a form of progressive dementia similar to Alzheimer’s. Organized as ever, she had already begun grooming Reddy to run the business. The rest of the Howe clan was less than thrilled with her choice. “I don’t know if any of the children, the family, were very receptive of Del,” says Mark, who spoke for his father and the family for this story. “We had reservations.” But they respected their mother’s judgment, he said, and went back to their own busy lives.

For business associates and friends, the transition to Reddy’s control changed everything. “Del was unbelievably difficult,” says Hersh Borenstein, a Toronto memorabilia dealer who has dealt extensively with the Howes since he got into the business in 1992. Reddy isn’t a big man, but his short stature belied a man on constant lookout for perceived slights, Borenstein explains. “When I put an ad in the Hockey News wishing Gordie a happy 75th birthday, I thought Del would appreciate it. Instead, I got yelled at. He wanted to know why the ad didn’t mention Colleen.”

It was typical of Reddy’s hair-trigger temper, and his seeming preoccupation with picayune details and minor trademark issues. All printed references to “Mr. Hockey” or “Mrs. Hockey” required registered trademark symbols, say former clients—however unlikely the name would be co-opted. Yet that sense of guardianship didn’t extend into Reddy’s personal treatment of Gordie, say clients. Brian Ehrenworth, whose company Frameworth Sports Marketing has worked extensively with the Howes, recalls one evening in 2003, after a Howe tribute evening at Toronto’s upscale Rosewater Supper Club. “Outside, on the way out, he was standing right in front of Gordie saying, ‘Well, you should get a lot of stuff signed now because Gordie’s not getting any younger.’ With Gordie, it was just water off a duck. He really didn’t care. But that was Del.” For many in the Howe’s orbit, the silver lining in the relationship was Howard, a shy but affable young man whose brother had been school chums with Reddy, and who began working for the Howes in 1996, and would later credit Colleen with putting him on a path to success. “She taught me some of the most important lessons in my life,” he is quoted as saying in a 2004 book about the Howes. “I learned to respond and treat people with kindness and care . . . I learned that money was not the most important thing in life.”

Yet no amount of goodwill toward Howard could ease the increasing stress Reddy’s outbursts were creating among Howe’s friends and family. Borenstein describes an incident five years ago at a party marking the 10th anniversary of his Toronto store, Frozen Pond. A former NHLer at the event had gotten off on the wrong foot with Reddy, Borenstein recalls. “He pointed to Del and said, ‘What’s wrong with that guy?’ I said, ‘Ah, Del’s just being a prick. Keep your distance.’ Well, Aaron heard it and told Del. The next thing I know, Del’s grabbing me by the arm and pulling me out the back door of the store, saying, ‘I heard what you said!’ Then he starts shoving me against the wall. I said, ‘Del, you’re being a prick. You’re showing it right now. It’s a celebration. Be nice to people!’ ”

Even Howe seemed to be growing exasperated with his manager. Once counted among the most accessible sports heroes, he increasingly found himself at carefully choreographed signing events, where fans were required to purchase specific items, and queue up for some face time with the legend. Howe chafed under the restrictions, says Gatt; he liked to mix with his fans, posing for photos with his famous elbows up, spinning yarns about hard-fought games. Gatt recalls one signing, where a boy in a wheelchair wanted to shake Gordie’s hand. “Del said, ‘If you want to shake Gordie’s hand, go buy a book and stay in line.’ ”

In that case, as in others, the flashpoint would turn out be a 2004 book about the Howes whose mere existence would later become a divisive issue in court. Mr. & Mrs. Hockey was an anthology of tributes to the Howes. But it will never rank as a must-have hockey tome. Published by Immortal Investments, the firm owned by Reddy and his father, it is riddled with editing errors and broken syntax. The testimonials ooze with treacly sentiment while the photo pages are comprised largely of grip-and-grin candids from Howe’s public appearances—many of them featuring Reddy and Howard. Fact is, the 25,603 copies produced were never really meant for bookstore shelves. Fans at some events got a signed copy for free if they purchased, say, an autographed photo for $100, said several sources familiar with the transactions. On other occasions, the photos or bobbleheads were free as long as fans bought the book, whose cover price was US$49.95.

No matter what the arrangement, sources told Maclean’s, organizers of the events were required to write cheques directly to Immortal, even though the real value to fans lay in Howe’s signature. “Who would buy the book without Gordie signing it?” asks one. “I mean, it was a brutal book. It seemed to me like it was being promoted [by Howe] for free.”

For Mark Howe, the book was cause for serious concern. The complaint he eventually filed in November 2007 claimed that Reddy and Howard had advised any clients who wanted a Gordie Howe appearance that they had to buy copies of the tribute book, but that Howe had never been properly compensated for promoting them. “A vast majority of the 2004 contracts have the entire payment for Gordie Howe’s appearance going entirely to Immortal,” the suit said. “Immortal has not reimbursed Gordie Howe for the funds it has illegally converted” (exactly who gained what from sales of Mr. & Mrs. Hockey remains unclear to this day, as both discovery materials from the court case were sealed; a source familiar with the terms of the settlement told Maclean’s that all existing copies are bound for the shredder).

That was just the beginning of the Howes’ case against their former employees. The lawsuit also claimed that Reddy and Howard had created a charitable foundation in Colleen’s name with themselves and their family members as officers—ostensibly to fund the cost of her care should Gordie die. But deposits to the fund came from Gordie Howe’s signings and public appearances, the complaint alleged, and neither he nor Colleen Howe saw a cent of the money. The Howes were similarly suspicious of a project called “Kings of Their Sports,” in which Howe had posed for photos with other sporting greats, including Arnold Palmer and Jean Béliveau. The project was funded with Power Play money, the Howes contended, yet Power Play received only $15,000 for the 2,500 photos produced and autographed. Given that the photos currently sell for between $150 and $350, that was presumably a tiny fraction of what the pictures fetched.

Then there was the Vancouver Giants deal. According to the Howe’s suit, Reddy in 2005 told Gordie that Power Play was having financial difficulties, and needed to raise cash to help pay for Colleen’s care. Ron Toigo, the majority owner of the Western Hockey League team, told Maclean’s Reddy approached him with the same story, and set up a deal for Howe to sell his five per cent share back to the other owners. The sale netted Howe US$200,000, court documents show. But the Howes contend that Gordie was not in financial distress at all. Reddy and Howard made the move, the suit alleged, to enhance Power Play’s bottom line so they could collect bonuses and “other financial rewards” due to them if Power Play did well.

Not surprisingly, the Reddy-Howard camp offered an alternative version of events. In a series of court filings over the past year, they denied breaching their duties of trust and honesty to Howe, claiming that Gordie had verbally consented to the book and photo projects. Reddy denied telling Toigo that Gordie was in financial trouble, noting that Marty Howe signed off on the Giants deal, while Howard said that Immortal had a “partnership” with Power Play, which allowed it to write contracts on Power Play’s behalf that Gordie “verbally endorsed on numerous occasions.”

Their countersuit cast Mark Howe as bent on destroying their future prospects. In particular, Del Reddy argued that a story about the Howes’ suit in the Hockey News torpedoed his chance to host a proposed TV show called Champs, which was to be produced by Mike Ilitch, Jr. Worse, he claimed, he was unable to apply his experience with the Howes elsewhere in the sport. “I believe I had a realistic expectation of obtaining work in professional hockey,” he said.

“Nobody really wins these things. Just the lawyers.” The words are Mark Howe’s, and they offer as good an explanation as you’ll get for why—having started the proceedings with all guns blazing—the Howes gladly settled the day the trial was to begin. For all the witnesses willing to enumerate Del Reddy’s shortcomings, the spectre of Gordie on the stand clearly scared the Howe boys. Their father’s memory was breaking down, Mark now acknowledges; he was easily confused about times, dates and details. “I sat with him through a day of depositions and it wasn’t nice,” Howe says. “All I ever told Dad to make it easy for him was to tell the truth. But it wasn’t in the best interests of my father to go to court. I’m sure the other side knew that too.”

Indeed, the other side was so buoyed by the deposition Gordie gave last July they fought to make the transcript public. They failed: Judge Andrews ordered most of the testimony sealed. Yet details that emerged in subsequent legal arguments suggest Gordie was fuzzy during the deposition on why the case had been launched, and that he considered his former employees to be basically truthful people. “Throughout his deposition, Mr. Howe admitted that many of the factual allegations of the complaint were simply untrue,” the defendants argued in their briefings. In court, Joel Newman, Reddy and Howard’s attorney, claimed “a right to disclose what he said about our clients, that he thinks they are honest, that he doesn’t think they have stolen from him, that they were like family to him.”

In the end, the Howes weren’t complaining about the deal they got (though they carefully avoid discussing the terms). Neither side won costs, and the agreement came with an injunction forbidding Reddy and Howard from “possessing, using, selling, storing, or in any way profiting from” merchandise bearing the Howe name. Same went for the ill-fated book and the “Kings of Their Sports” photos, the remainder of which they appear to have returned to the Howes. Meantime, says Mark Howe, the Vancouver Giants have brought Gordie back on a retainer to help publicize the team, while Marty, with the help of Mark’s 30-year-old son Travis, has the company back on track. “Dad’s business has grossed higher in the last few years than ever,” says Mark, “and his net is much, much better than it’s ever been.”

Del Reddy hasn’t fared nearly so well. In mid-July, during arguments over Gordie’s deposition, Newman disclosed that his client had suffered a nervous breakdown and was receiving psychiatric care. He has all but disappeared from the pro sport marketing scene. Howard, for his part, was still trying to find work, Newman told the court.

None of this makes Mark Howe rejoice. “I hope those guys move on and enjoy their lives,” he says, managing not to sound facetious. But he’s not exactly crying a river either. His father has moved on—or more accurately, reverted to previous form, which pleases his sons to see. “If there’s some guy sitting in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena who wants Gordie’s autograph, and he wants to give it, I have no problem with that,” says Mark. “We’re just letting Gordie be Gordie.”