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.”