Don’t bet on Saskatoon event to be Gordie Howe’s final public appearance

Gordie Howe's transformation from early December until now is nothing short of extraordinary.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport/USA TODAY Sports

Gordie Howe and his extended family are still planning to join other Canadian hockey royalty in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on Feb. 6 in what is being billed as Howe’s "final public appearance ever."

Howe’s children, grandchildren and siblings will attend, along with Wayne Gretzky and several local and national dignitaries in an event sponsored by the Kinsmen Club of Saskatoon, the local chapter of a national service organization. Among the evening’s highlights: The announcement that a local rink, the Kinsmen Arena, will henceforth be known as the Gordie Howe Kinsmen Arena.

Only one little issue surrounding all the hype surrounding this event, however: It may not be Howe’s final public appearance.

That’s how well he is responding after stem cell therapy in Mexico on Dec. 8 helped him rise from his death bed and give him his life back. The 86-year-old hockey legend is now stick-handling beanbag pucks around his daughter’s home in Lubbock, Texas. He can throw and catch a football with either hand (like he could before a serious stroke on Oct. 26 robbed him of mobility along most of the right side of his body).

He can form short sentences, respond accurately to basic questions and tell "little three-minute stories," son Murray Howe said. Recently, Gordie pushed a shopping cart around the grocery store. And on another day, he and Murray walked about a half-mile at a local mall — stopping several times for short breaks.

And best of all, Gordie Howe absolutely knows who he is as well as his role in the hockey universe. Ask him about "Mr. Hockey," Murray said, and Gordie points to himself.

So the Saskatoon appearance, once thought to be impossible because of his poor health, is definitely on. Howe will travel from Lubbock to Saskatoon in a private jet and sit among other VIPs for the 55th Annual Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner before a sold-out crowd.

"If the Howes are asked to speak, it’ll probably be me or Mark," Murray said of his Hall of Fame brother, the director of pro scouting for the Red Wings. "I don’t expect my dad to make a speech, but he has been known to grab the microphone on occasion, and I wouldn’t put it past him."

The transformation from early December, when the Howe family estimated Gordie’s time was measured in a few weeks, if not days, until now is nothing short of extraordinary. Murray described it as a Christmas miracle. But the folks at Stemedica Cell Technology in San Diego, California, call it routine. They see results like these in patients frequently, which is why David McGuigan, vice president of Marketing and Business Development, urged his bosses to reach out to the Howe family after learning that Gordie had suffered a stroke.

McGuigan’s first job out of college at the University of Michigan was as director of Amateur Hockey Development, a program of his creation involving injured and retired players holding clinics for college and other amateur groups, in the late 1970s under then Wings General Manager Ted Lindsay. That’s when he first met Howe, who at the time was pushing 50 and still playing professional hockey.

When Stemedica first contacted the Howe family in late November they were keenly interested, Murray Howe said. But then Gordie was hospitalized again with what was first diagnosed as another stroke. Later, doctors determined that his system was severely dehydrated. By then he was so feeble the family feared it might be too late for such treatment.

"He got so bad we felt we were not going to be able to get him there. He won’t survive," Murray said. "He was, literally, on his death bed. He could not stand on his own. He couldn’t talk. He could barely eat — just enough to survive.

"But on Dec. 3, when he was discharged, he seemed to improve. He was eating a little bit. When we put him in his wheelchair he could move himself around on one good leg. It was as if was saying, ‘You know, I’m not dead yet. I still want to survive.’ That was our message, and we (siblings) got together and said, ‘OK, we’re going to give you this opportunity.’"

"When Marty and Murray picked him up and put him in my car, it was like two very fit men lifting a very heavy back of rocks," McGuigan said. "That was his baseline, really low."

After the stem cell treatment, performed in Mexico while it awaits approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, improvement was swift and remarkable. On the third day following the procedure, Gordie Howe walked on his own to the airplane that would carry him back to Texas. Within a few more days, he was working a rake out in the yard. That’s when his kids went out and bought him "some toys," Murray said, among them a hockey stick and some beanbag pucks, and the football.

He plays. But he also eats a lot and sleeps even more as his body regenerates itself. He’s gained 20 pounds, Murray said. And the many hours of sleep he’s enjoying is not uncommon among patients like him in clinical research studies, McGuigan said. Frequently, many of them have endured such pain for so long that it prevented them from more than a few hours of sleep at a time. So it was for Howe and his chronically aching back. In the absence of pain, sleep comes more easily.

Meantime, as Gordie Howe continues to improve, doctors and researchers will continue to monitor his progress and evaluate his blood markers periodically, McGuigan said. At some point, he’ll plateau. And in 8-9 months, the Howes may decide to have another round of stem cell therapy.

"Keep in mind, he’s 86 years old," McGuigan said. "He’s not going to be trying out for the Olympic hockey team. Stem cells are not a cure for anything. What they have been able to do is return a quality of life, and that’s what we’re seeing here — an incremental advancement, both cognitively and physically."

Since Howe has been making headlines with his recovery, Stemedica has been contacted by many people inquiring about its services. McGuigan is referring everyone to clinicaltrials.gov for more information.

Meanwhile, the Howes aren’t closing the door to more events like the one in Saskatoon for their famous father.

"We have to reevaluate all of that," Murray acknowledged. "He’s gradually improving all the time, and he loves the public. He loves being out there, reaching out to people. If he continues to improve, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of some limited appearances."