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VIDEO: A day with Mr. Hockey and his family

Posted: 11:43 PM, May 13, 2016
Updated: 2016-05-13 23:43:46-04
VIDEO: A day with Mr. Hockey and his family
VIDEO: A day with Mr. Hockey and his family

Gordie Howe's birthday cake stood a few feet off the ground at Joe Louis Arena in late March, surrounding by the Howe family and 20,000 people standing on their feet.

The celebration was a sign of how much had changed.

A year and a half prior, the Howe family was ready to say goodbye to Mr. Hockey. 

"He had been struggling with dementia and traumatic brain injury, so a lot of things were going on. He was going downhill to the point where we said, 'This is going to be his sunset,'" Howe's son Murray told Action News this week in Toledo, where the family was launching the new Gordie Howe Initiative for stem cell treatment.

In late 2014, Murray and his siblings decided to move their father to Texas to live with their sister. Soon after, Gordie's condition quickly took a dive.

"About a month after he moved there, he suffered a severe stroke. He couldn't move his right side. He couldn't talk," Murray recalled.

The Howe family was ready to say goodbye to Mr. Hockey.

"We said, 'This is definitely the end,'" Murray said.

A phone call from California changed everything.

"Murray had already written the eulogy, so basically they had given up on his father. He hadn't eaten, really, and hadn't walked for 40 days," Dr. Maynard Howe told Action News. 

Howe (no relation to Gordie) is the CEO of Stemedica, a stem cell research company based in San Diego. He and his co-workers told the hockey legend's family they would perform a revolutionary stem cell treatment if Murray and his siblings would send Gordie to Mexico.

FDA regulations at the time stated any stem cell treatment to a person who had suffered a stroke must occur six months after said stroke, Maynard explained. Mexico had less strict regulations, and the Howe family was ready to take a chance.

"I was very skeptical at first, of course. I said, 'I don't know anything about stem cells,' and I read through it. It was amazing to me," Murray explained.

The Howes were out of options, and the $30,000 treatment wasn't going to cost them a dime. The risk, after studying the progressions of stem cell work, was worth it to the family.

So the Howe brothers put their father onto a plane, lifting him into his seat on a plane to Mexico.

"It was a risk for the company, dealing with someone that close to being in the grave, but of course, the stem cells had the miraculous impact they had on people before him," Stemedica's Dr. Howe declared.

"Within three days of his treatment, he was dancing with the nurses."

The procedure transformed Gordie Howe's life. It took him off his death bed, and allowed him to travel and live a more active life.

The Howes aren't trying to fool anyone. They know their dad doesn't possess the athleticism of the man who played in the NHL in five decades.

But he is alive, and Murray said his family doesn't take a single day for granted.

"We take him to local rinks, and he watches the kids play," he told us.

This week, the Howes allowed us to join them at Inverness Country Club in Toledo, where Gordie made a surprise appearance to embrace the stem cell effort named after him.

The Gordie Howe Initiative will begin trials this summer in Toledo, with 24 patients suffering from traumatic brain injuries. 

Promedica hospital system in Toledo will serve as the center of the stem cell initiative. 

The program is looking to raise money for its FDA-approved adult stem cell program. It aims to help veterans, former athletes, and people of all walks of life with traumatic brain injuries.

"We're kind of celebrating this with the Gordie Howe Initiative. We're trying to raise money for stem call, and make it available for more people," Promedica's Dr. Roger Kruse said.

Cruse has been the the Howe family physician for the last 15 years.

"We've had a great year and a half with him. Something we never would think we would've had," Murray said.

"My dad has pretty much given everything to the community. I just feel like this is a way that God has allowed him to reach out to even more people after he's gone."

Brad Galli is a sports anchor and reporter at WXYZ Detroit. Follow Brad on Twitter @BradGalli