Publication date: Thursday, December 23, 1999
SANDUSKY – Muscular dystrophy keeps Steven Kirkpatrick in a wheelchair most of his day, but his illness didn’t keep him from becoming what his friends call “the world’s greatest hockey fan.”
And it’s no coincidence the greatest fan and the man known as Mr. Hockey have become good friends in the past year.
Mr. Kirkpatrick, 21, was instrumental in getting “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe, 71, and his wife, hometown girl Colleen Ford Howe, 66, back to Sandusky Wednesday where Mr. Howe autographed 250 Hallmark Christmas ornament featuring his likeness.
Sandusky is the smallest city in which the Howes have raised money. The couple operate the Howe Foundation.
“But we wanted to come to Sandusky to support Steven,” Mr. Howe said.
Mr. Kirkpatrick organized the event, which raised $10,000, as a thank-you to the Howes for their friendship. Mr. Howe spent two hours signing five-inch replicas for people who bought $42 tickets to the event.
Mrs. Howe was born in Sandusky and lived there until she was 7, Mr. Kirkpatrick said. Mr. Howe started his National Hockey League career in 1946 when he donned the red and white uniform of the Detroit Red Wings. His fame grew in the 1950s and 1960s as he set many records. He was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in 1972. He was playing for the Hartford Whalers when he retired in 1976.
“He’s pretty much the Babe Ruth of hockey,” Mr. Kirkpatrick said.
Mr. Kirkpatrick became friends with the Howes about a year ago and doesn’t mention Mr. Howe without talking about Mrs. Howe and how their friendship and generosity changed his life.
Mrs. Howe is president of the Howe Foundation which gave him a van with a wheelchair lift. The debilitating disease nearly robbed Mr. Kirkpatrick of his mobility and Mrs. Howe helped make sure it didn’t happen.
Mr. Kirkpatrick uses a ventilator to aid his breathing after a bout with pneumonia in February. He had four surgeries and spent two months in Port Huron Hospital recovering. He can no longer move himself from his chair to a car seat.
Mrs. Howe heard what happened.
“Colleen called and said they wanted to help me,” Mr. Kirkpatrick said. “It was just the greatest.”
They told him to pick out a van. A friend with muscular dystrophy, Jimmy Arnold of Mayville, had recently died and had a van equipped to meet Mr. Kirkpatrick’s needs.
The Howe Foundation bought it for about $35,000.
“I’m sure Jimmy would’ve wanted me to have it,” he said.
Mr. Howe said he formed the foundation about 10 years ago after meeting people in need.
“We felt they could help people by giving needy people money and funding kids doing important things,” he said.
The fund has grown each year, and Mr. and Mrs. Howe hope it will continue to do so into the next century.
“It is impossible to do all the good you want,” Mrs. Howe said.
The Howes set up fund-raisers and plan a traveling memorabilia tour that showcases Mr. Howe’s hockey feats.
Sandusky has a population of about 2,400. Barb Doran, a pharmacist at the Sanilac Pharmacy said no one had to wait outside or stand in line more than 45 minutes.
“It went great,” Ms. Doran said. “Everyone was excited. Gordie Howe and his wife are very wonderful people, very nice.”
She said there are 25 autographed ornaments still available at $42 each.
Mr. Kirkpatrick first met the Howes at a Viper game at The Palace of Auburn Hills when they were there for a promotion last December. He asked an employee if he could get an autograph. He was taken to a suite to meet them.
When Mrs. Howe found out he was from her hometown, she perked up, he said.
“We had something in common,” he said. They’ve been friends since.
They were impressed with his vitality for life and see him as an inspiration to all who meet him.
In January, Mr. Kirkpatrick was in the Howes’ suite at the World All Stars games in Tampa, Fla. They saw to it he met stars like Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros and Chris Pronger. He met recording artists the Back Street Boys and actor Tim Robbins.
He got sick the next month and was unable to go to a hockey game until Dec. 12.
“That was the greatest day,” he said. Mr. Howe asked him to go out on the ice at the Vipers game at the Palace of Auburn Hills to drop the ceremonial puck.
“I felt like I was part of the game like I was a player almost. He had the puck and I was under the assumption he was going to drop it. He said, `Go ahead and take care of this one.’ The captains of the Vipers and Milwaukee Admirals were at center ice. I dropped the puck and they took the face off. They gave the puck to me and shook my hand,” he said.
He said he’ll be forever grateful to the Howes.
“I just don’t know how I would be able to thank them. They’ve done so much for me,” he said.
Mr. Kirkpatrick lives with his mother, Connie, who divorced his father when he was very young. He doesn’t remember his dad but said his friend, Kevin McCrory of Fostoria, who has slow-progressing muscular dystrophy, fills that role for him.