TORONTO — It’s called “Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story,” but the film that airs Sunday on CBC-TV gives an equal amount of face time to another key player in the famed family.
As the movie shows, late wife Colleen Howe was the support system for Howe and their hockey-playing sons Marty and Mark, particularly as the beloved patriarch made a comeback to compete alongside his boys in the fledgling pro World Hockey Association league in the 1970s.
“Gordie was this giant on the ice and this giant figure in the hockey world but he’d spent so much of his life devoted to that, that I think even in their later years without her he was kind of lost because she handled everything else,” Vancouver actor Michael Shanks, who plays Howe in the film, said in a telephone interview.
“That’s one of the reasons the movie is dedicated to her. It demonstrates this unsung hero, Mrs. Hockey, who was really where everything flowed back into.”
“She was doing things that women just didn’t do at that time,” said Hamilton-born “Beverly Hills 90210” star Kathleen Robertson, who plays Colleen. “She was very involved and very influential in all the business dealings of what it was to be Gordie Howe in that time period. She was very protective of her sons, she basically negotiated their deals, she was their manager and she was really smart and really tough.”
“Mr. Hockey” finds Saskatchewan-born Howe in his mid-40s, retired from his 25-year career on the ice and unhappily working a job in the Detroit Red Wings front office.
When sons Marty (Dylan Playfair) and Mark (Andrew Herr) are drafted into the newly formed WHA in a deal initiated by agent Colleen, Howe decides to join them and they play for the Houston Aeros in what was billed as “the first father-son team ever.”
As the film shows, the move was also labelled by some as “the biggest publicity stunt in hockey history” and had officials with the rival NHL threatening that the Howe sons would never play in their league.
But Howe wasn’t deterred.
“He’d spent so much of his life playing the game that he was a little bit lost when he wasn’t doing it,” said Shanks, former star of “Stargate SG-1” who is now on the supernatural medical drama “Saving Hope.”
“And then when the opportunity presented itself, where he saw that his two kids were drafted at a young age and he still had that fire burning, I think he just took advantage of the opportunity that he had to use his name to get back in the sport.
“But I think it was just a dream to play with his boys.”
Andy Mikita directed and Malcolm MacRury wrote the script, getting input from Marty and Mark Howe.
Herr and Playfair, whose father (Jim Playfair) is an associate coach for the Phoenix Coyotes, also got to talk to the brothers.
But neither Shanks nor Robertson got to meet with any of the Howes.
Shanks preferred that, though.
“I was actually really reluctant for any opportunity to try and talk to anybody because I didn’t want the pressure of having to live up to another person’s expectations of who or what the character was,” he said.
“I just wanted to take the material and go with it.”
Shanks said he pored over interviews and videos of Howe to get to down his mannerisms.
He even had his dentist make up a set of fake teeth for him to wear onscreen so as to replicate the way Howe’s dentures affected his speech.
Shanks already had extensive hockey experience prior to shooting: He started playing when he was five in Kamloops, B.C., did it competitively until about age 20, and still plays occasionally.
But the 12-hour, overnight shoots in a Winnipeg ice rink took their toll.
“I don’t think anybody’s used to keeping their feet in skates for that length of time,” said Shanks, 42. “So I actually did some nerve damage to two of my toes just from the first day when I kept my feet in the skates the whole time.”
Robertson said Herr’s “feet were just trashed, just bloody and ripped apart” from wearing the ’70s-era skates.