Murray Howe (M.D. 1986) reflects on the words of wisdom shared by his father, “Mr. Hockey,” in a new book.
When you’re one of three sons of hockey great Gordie Howe — and the only one who didn’t make it to the sport’s professional ranks to play alongside your father — the world might forgive you for being a little bitter.
But that’s not how Gordie and Colleen Howe raised their youngest son, Murray Howe (M.D. 1986). So while he was devastated when the Wolverines cut him in 1978 and effectively ended his pro hockey dreams — he still chokes up when he talks about it — at the time he simply mustered his dignity, wrote “Good luck, guys!” on the team chalkboard inside Yost Arena, and walked back to his dorm room to call his parents with the bad news.
Their reaction? “Well, thank God we don’t have to worry about you anymore.” It’s true, Murray Howe says today, that “the guys kept getting bigger and the hits got harder.” But most important to his legendary father? “I could tell you just weren’t having fun the last couple of years,” Mr. Hockey said.
And that — “Play Hard, but Have Fun” — is one of the Nine Lessons I Learned From My Father (Viking, 2017), the title of Murray Howe’s new book about growing up the son of No. 9, one of the greatest hockey players in history. The book, which already has spent several weeks on Canadian bestseller lists, sprang from the eulogy Howe put together after his father’s death, at 88, in 2016.
Other chapter titles, like “Live Honorably,” “Live Generously,” “Be Humble,” and “Be Tough,” sketch a portrait that any fan recognizes instantly. For those who encountered the endlessly generous Mr. Hockey in his decades of interacting with the public, a couple of other chapter headings also ring true: “Live Selflessly,” and “Patience, Patience, Patience.”
But if Murray Howe could have foreseen the chapter titles of his book on that fall evening in 1978, perhaps the most relevant one would have been “Stay Positive.” That lesson helped Howe transfer the focus he developed over a lifetime of working on his pro hockey dream to the study of medicine.
“I had dedicated my entire existence to that singular goal” of playing professional hockey, Howe says. “After all of that, studying 10 hours a day for med school was nothing. … If I had to be on that ward at 5 in the morning for the general surgery rounds, well, I was used to being at the rink at 4:30. And there was no amount of work the attending could dump on me that would bother me in the least.”
Beyond that, he says, “the learning was sheer joy. What a gift it was, to be there to listen to all these world-class professors and clinicians.”
They included Robert Bartlett (M.D. 1963), professor emeritus of surgery and a pioneer of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), who Howe first encountered about 4 a.m. in the neonatal intensive care unit at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Bartlett was trying to thread a catheter into the superior vena cava of a half-kilogram baby, and the delicate procedure took hours. Once it was done, Bartlett shook off his exhaustion and, because he is a legendary teacher as well as a gifted surgeon, took the time to explain to Howe what he had done. It wasn’t until later that Bartlett found out who Howe was, and invited him to play on the Medical School’s intramural hockey team, the Hockey Docs.
Other faculty members who made deep impressions included transplant surgeons Donald Dafoe, M.D., and Darrell “Skip” Campbell, M.D. (Residency 1978); and radiologist Barry Gross (M.D. 1977), whose 3D CAT scan images during an anatomy lecture inspired Howe, on the spot, to take up radiology. Gross became Howe’s mentor and friend, and the two collaborated on an article published in the textbook Cardiopulmonary Imaging. Howe can’t help but share the punchline: Gross pointed out that the article would be cited “CT Evaluation of the Equivocal Pulmonary Nodule: Howe Gross.”
Now Howe is a professor himself, at the University of Toledo Medical Center, and heads Sports Medicine Imaging for Toledo Radiological Associates and the Promedica Health Systems Sports Care Program. He also serves on the U-M Medical School Admissions Committee.
And it was his father — a Depression-era kid from the Canadian prairies for whom school was so difficult he had to repeat third grade two times — who taught him the most important lessons of his life.
“Adversity is a prerequisite for greatness, and both my mom and my dad helped me to realize that,” Howe says. “People might say, ‘Wow, you wasted 18 years of your life on something, then fell on your face.’ But I truly believe that everything I went through helped propel me into a successful, rewarding career in medicine. Every time one of my kids struggles, I just say ‘Own it. Own the struggle. It’s galvanizing you right now.’”
Courtesy of Murray Howe