A dispute with a hockey great has left a Michigan couple reeling

CHARLIE GILLIS January 14 2008


A dispute with a hockey great has left a Michigan couple reeling

CHARLIE GILLIS January 14 2008


A dispute with a hockey great has left a Michigan couple reeling



IF LIONEL AND KAREN Dorfman nursed any illusion of besting Gordie Howe in the court of public opinion—or any other court— it died on Sept. 26 at the justice building in Pontiac, Mich., where their feud with the white-haired hockey legend was about to come to a head. For seven days, the septua genarian couple had been through a media wrecking machine, cast in reports across North America as the world’s worst neigh hours for training a security camera on Howe’s home across the road, and as insensitive jerks for comments they’d allegedly made about Howe’s ailing wife, Colleen.

Howe’s lawyers had initiated this onslaught with a hyperbole-laden lawsuit, claiming their client felt harassed, intimidated and, in one overwrought use of legalese, “molested” by the Dorfmans’ surveillance activities. Howe’s admirers in the press were quick to take up the cause: “Window-peepers,” “voyeurs” and “busybodies” counted among the more polite labels attached to the couple by Howe-friendly newspaper columnists. Allan Maki, the Globe and Mail’s normally playful sports scribe, awarded them the “Gladys Kravitz Award,” named for the nosy neighbour on the 1960s TV sitcom Bewitched.

Then hockey’s lunatic fringe came out. “Leave Gordie alone,” rasped one latenight caller to the Dorfman residence.

On an Internet blog, an anonymous poster urged Howe to “tell us where they live,” adding, “We’ll take care of them for you, Gordie.”

It had been a rough week. Still, the Dorfmans had not yet abandoned hope, and the Oakland County courthouse at least offered the comfort of neutral territory. But the two parties had hardly settled into separate conference rooms when a veteran judge arrived from one of the upper floors with his entire staff in tow—all of them eager to shake hands with Mr. Hockey. The jurist had nothing to do with the case. But for the Dorfmans’ lawyer, Edward Lennon, it was a moment of clarity. “You could win on every point of the law,” he cautioned his clients a few minutes

later. But Detroit is Hockeytown, U.S.A., he said, and Howe is its living deity. “In this city, you’ll still come out the losers.”

An outcome with no winner, then, was about the best the Dorfmans could hope for, and that’s precisely what they got. Howe’s lawsuit was dismissed by mutual consent that day, averting what promised to be a messy

discovery and trial. In exchange, the Dorfmans agreed to remove the camera pointed at the house where the 79-year-old hockey star lives. The nut of their dispute—whether Howe was running a sports memorabilia business out of his residence—has gone temporarily moot. The constant flow of delivery trucks through the tidy, upmarket development of Bloomfield Chase has subsided, reports Lionel, and access to his driveway is no longer blocked by the vehicles he says once pulled up to offload hockey sticks, posters, pucks, bric-a-brac and people.

Still, for 10 weeks the Dorfmans have been nursing the abrasions of the mother of all garden-fence disputes, stewing over the embarrassment it has caused them among friends and family. “Put my name into Google,” the retired urologist tells Maclean’s ruefully. “You’ll get four pages of hits on Gordie Howe and two links on the [medical] research I did.” But redress may prove hard to obtain. One option is to take Howe back to court in a defamation suit, a costly route that Lennon says may not be worth the public flaying that would inevitably ensue.

The alternative is opening up to the media types that caused them all the trouble in the first place, exhuming details that just might explain how an accomplished, wellmannered couple winds up in a knock-down, drag-out dispute with an athletic icon known for his amiablity. In the two years since his relations with Howe took a turn for the worse, Lionel Dorfman has had time to reflect on these events, knowing the participants on either side don’t come off particularly well. He tries to remain philosophical, even as he calls old acquaintances to explain how his life became a media soap opera. Living next to a sports legend is “no picnic,” he will tell you in his deliberate way. But the real peril was in telling said legend he cannot always do as he pleases: “I guess there are some things you just don’t say to Gordie Howe.”

IT HAS BEEN a lesson hard-learned. When the Dorfmans first bought into this pristine community northwest of Detroit in 2002, they had no idea a sports icon lived across the street. Bloomfield Chase is one of those understated developments for the tastefully monied—a place of faux-rustic street signs and avenues made narrow to foster a sense of coziness. Its Walter Mi tty-style residences


are detached, but upkeep and administration are left to a condominium board, which is seldom called upon to mediate disputes.

On the face of things, the Dorfmans seem like the last people who would start one. Both stand under five foot four, and Lionel, a retired urologist, has only partial sight in his left eye. He speaks with the precision of a physician accustomed to delivering unwelcome news, while Karen’s emotions run closer to the surface. She sometimes interrupts her husband if she thinks he’s understating the wrongs committed against them (“You have no idea what we’ve been through,” she says).

NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH: Evidence from the camera aimed at the Howes’ house

But her exasperation is tempered by sentimentality. First-time visitors to their home are quizzed closely about their children or grandchildren, and Lionel laments his wife’s tendency to lavish expensive gifts on her most casual acquaintances. “She’ll write cheques to perfect strangers if she thinks they need help,” he says. “I’m not kidding.”

Before moving to Bloomfield Chase, the Dorfmans lived for 25 years in the upscale city of Battle Creek, Mich., where they enjoyed prestige and considerable goodwill among the locals. They volunteered tirelessly—Karen on the city arts council, Lionel on the board of the local symphony. If they were at constant odds with their neighbours, there’s no record to show it. They once lodged a complaint about a man who was operating a furniture restoration business out of his garage—a case that foreshadowed their dispute with Howe (“He was setting all the stuff out on the driveway so the varnish could dry,” recalls Lionel. “It looked a bit like a yard sale”). But friends say they did not go looking for trouble. “It isn’t in their nature to create problems with anybody,” says Tom Wil-

son, who has known the Dorfmans for 35 years. “When I heard the things being said about them, I couldn’t believe it.”

At first, it looked as if the Dorfmans would get on with the Howes just fine. Neither Lionel nor Karen is a hockey aficionado, but both grew up in Toronto when Howe was the toast of the NHL, regarding him with the same distant awe as other Canadians. Soon after they moved in, the hockey star paid a courtesy call, and he and Lionel would often engage in friendly banter. Howe was not adverse to cadging the odd medical opinion, says Lionel, at one point bringing over his


prescription list for a consultation. He also liked to tell stories from his playing days, a habit annoying only insofar as he tended to repeat them. Patty Miller, a mutual acquaintance who lives in Battle Creek, recalls pleasant relations between the two families when she came to visit the Dorfmans a few years ago. “I can verify that Gordie used Lionel as a sounding board on some medical things because he did when I was there visiting,” she says. “Everything seemed fine.”

But the Dorfmans were noticing the growing challenge Howe faced in caring for his wife. Sometimes Lionel’s conversations with Howe would turn to Colleen, who is stricken with Pick’s disease, a rapidly progressing form

of dementia that has already confined her to a wheelchair. Lionel says he was careful to avoid giving advice, but he did offer opinions. “I remember saying, look, the best option is an extended care facility,” he says. “You go there, you move in with your wife and you have an apartment together. They look after her and you and if someone gets really sick they move you to another part of the same facility. They’re very expensive, but some really are good.” The remark would come back to bite Lionel. Roger Smith, the Howes’ lawyer, reprised it in their complaint as “just put her in a nursing home”—a formulation Lionel describes as an outrageous distortion. “I would never say something like that. I may offer opinions people don’t like, but I do not say things that are cruel.”

By then, the Dorfmans were noticing traffic around the Howes’ driveway—lots of it. Day in and day out the combined presence of the Howes’ relatives, office staff, Colleen’s caregivers and Colleen’s caregivers’ children was clogging the corner where the two houses are located with parked cars, they say. Repeated requests to keep the vehicles clear of the Dorfmans’ driveway resulted in temporary relief, says Lionel. But within days the problems would return, and tempers flared. In the fall of 2005, Karen backed her car out of the garage, coming within centimetres of hitting a shiny new sedan parked behind her. “I don’t know how I missed it,” she says. “I went back into the house and got a flashlight to see if I’d done any damage. Just then this young man came flying out of the house, screaming and swearing and saying I’d better watch my back.” The Dorfmans later identified the man as Del Reddy, a former business manager of Howe’s promotional company, Power Play International, whom Howe is now suing (Reddy’s phone has been disconnected and he could not be reached for comment; Marty Howe, who is Gordie’s son and who answered interview requests to his father for this story, said he had no knowledge of the incident).

The next day, Lionel and Gordie sat down at the Dorfmans’ dining room table. The conversation was tense, but civil, Lionel says. “Gordie, this is no good,” he recalls saying. “Next time, we’re going to call the cops. You’ll be reading about it in the paper.” Howe appeared genuinely apologetic, according to Lionel, noting the employee involved had had a similar encounter with a woman seeking an autograph and that he planned to deal with the problem permanently.

“NOW, HERE IS GORDIE, and you can see he’s unloading two boxes of what appear to be hockey sticks,” says Lionel Dorfman, with a click of his computer mouse. “Now here’s Gordie again, and he’s unloading two more

boxes of hockey sticks. And here’s Gordie’s grandson, with another load of boxes.” Dorfman is seated in his upstairs office, a few feet from the windowed alcove where he set up the infamous surveillance camera on a tripod, pointing the lens downward at the Howes’ driveway and front door. In picture after picture flashing across Lionel’s computer screen, Howe and his grandson Travis can be seen unloading cargo from a beige minivan—hockey sticks, poster tubes, boxes upon boxes of paper. Other frames show Howe using a dolly to move items stacked ceiling-high in his garage.

The camera, Dorfman says, was an act of desperation, born partly of the Reddy incident and partly of Howe’s apparent determination to do business out of his home, contrary to county bylaws. On the day in June 2006 he noticed Howe unloading the freight, Lionel says he went over and asked Howe what he was up to. Howe, he says, bluntly told him he had closed a commercial office and would be operating his firm out of the house. “We told him,

‘Gordie, we’ve had this discussion before,’ ” says Lionel. “ ‘You can’t run a business out of your home. It’s not allowed.’ He said, ‘I’m doing it.’ And that was that.”

The Howe camp disputes this account. Roger Smith, who happens to live three doors down the street from Howe, says his client was merely in the process of moving to another commercial property located in nearby Royal Oak, and was storing material for a few days. He acknowledges that Howe’s website listed Howe’s home as Power Play International’s business address for several months. But he describes it as “an error” that Howe quickly rectified. “I can show you the property in Royal Oak where he keeps everything. That

is now his place of business.”

Perhaps. But what Dorfman saw frustrated him enough that he began snapping pictures with his digital camera; he also wrote a complaint to the condominium board, which went unanswered. When the traffic continued, and a second letter to the condo board went unanswered, he paid a visit to the offices of Bloomfield Township. There, a compliance officer named Brenda Schultow assured him that ordinances forbade running a business out of a residence. But the township required more than the Dorfmans’ word, she said. The township’s lawyer, Jeffrey Butler, has since

denied encouraging Dorfman to use surveillance. Yet Schultow did write to Howe last February after reviewing photos taken with Dorfman’s camera, saying, “it has come to my attention that you are running your business, Power Play International Inc., out of your home.”

By then, however, Dorfman and Howe had gone a lot further down their collision course. The ballet of cars in front of the Howe residence, says Dorfman, was getting so bad he admits he sunk to tit-for-tat behaviour. In December 2006, after arriving home to find a staff member’s car crowding his driveway— and Howe’s driveway empty—he parked his Mercedes in the same way in front of Howe’s

home. “Dumb?” he says. “Yes. But also effective. She came out and moved the car.” But when one of Colleen’s caregivers parked in the same spot a few minutes later, and Dorfman repeated the manoeuvre, it brought out the Howe known to long-time hockey fans. “I was walking back to the house and I hear this, ‘What the f— is your problem?’ ” Behind Lionel was a steaming Howe, waving his arms, swearing and, in the midst of his rage, trying to tell Dorfman he needed the driveway clear to prepare for a road trip. It was now obvious, says Lionel, that he and Howe were past the point of civil discussion. “I thought, one more

inch of pressure on this guy, and he’s going to belt me.”

Much would be made of Lionel’s surveillance technology: his Taiwanese-made camera can be set to reel off 17,000 frames over 24 hours, and Howe’s suit made it sound like Lionel passed all his waking hours sifting through photos of the Howe property. The truth was a little more prosaic. A computer program allowed him to scan for frames showing activity—in this case, people and goods coming or going. Dorfman says he might spend an hour each morning saving photos he thought would buttress his case and that the task didn’t exactly give him cheap thrills. “Frankly, I’m glad I no longer have to do it,” he says. “Believe it or not, I have better things to do.”

Suffice to say, none of the photos showing Howe moving boxes, or couriers coming and going from the front door, appeared in the 18-page complaint Howe filed in Oakland County Circuit Court on Sept. 18. Nor did any account of the yelling match. Or Del Reddy’s alleged explosion at Karen Dorfman.

What Smith did attach were photos of Colleen’s caregivers that Dorfman had submitted to the township to support his con-


tention that the women doubled as errand runners for Howe’s business. The effect was devastating. The next morning, the Dorfmans were woken at 7:30 by a call from the Detroit News. Was it true they were spying on Gordie Howe? Over the next three days, story after story reprised the “just put her in a nursing home” quote, along with Smith’s claim that the Dorfmans resented the presence of Colleen’s caregivers. Several writers seemed to revel in the idea of Howe flexing a bit of long-dormant muscle. “If they keep it up, the Dorfmans may soon find out what every foolish hockey player discovered during Howe’s 32-season pro career,” wrote Bob Duff of the Windsor Star.

“You don’t ever take a run at Mr. Hockey.”

Howe himself kept a low profile during this period. A handful of sportswriters caught up to him on Sept.

22 during a Red Wings exhibition game in Joe Louis Arena.

“We’re not looking to get anything from this,” Howe said mildly, referring to the $25,000 in damages sought in the suit. “We just want to get them off our back.” After the settlement, he told reporters outside the courthouse,

“It’ll be nice to walk around with my shades up.”

If Howe was playing it cool, it may be because he had bigger things on his mind. The lawsuit he filed two months later against Reddy and another former business manager, Aaron Howard, underscores a streak of ill fortune at Power Play since illness had forced Colleen to relinquish her role as Howe’s manager. A legendary taskmaster and financial wizard, Colleen gave way to hired managers a few years back, among them Reddy and Howard, whose abrupt resignations in May 2006 prompted the lawsuit. Howe claims Reddy and Howard wrongly funnelled US$338,449 into a celebrity merchandise company owned by Reddy’s father Michael. The suit, which remains unresolved, also says the men falsely claimed that Power Play was in financial distress, prompting the 2005 sale of Howe’s five per cent interest in the Vancouver Giants junior hockey team.

The case has received nowhere near the coverage the one against the Dorfmans got. Yet it’s part of a broader sense of uncertainty and disorganization around Power Play—one that may have indirectly affected the Dorfmans. The address changes, the movement of merchandise into Gordie’s garage, and conflict with staff were only part of the picture. Earlier this month, emails to Power Play

drew automatic replies advising that “all orders placed within the last week are unable to be processed and have been cancelled,” adding: “This is due to our online merchant discontinuing their service.” The website itself


was under construction.

Marty Howe, a former NHL player who now holds the title of business manager of Power Play, declined to go into detail about the second suit, but said the company would survive. “We’re okay now,” he said. “It was just difficult getting started because [Howard and Reddy] just left us without any information. We were getting daily calls from people, saying, ‘Hey, where’s Gordie?’ ” Marty did, however, offer some response to the Dorfmans’ complaints about his father, dismissing the idea that Howe ever posed a physical threat. “An 80-year-old man who’s had a knee replacement and everything else is going to go and harass the neighbour? I don’t think so.”

As for Dorfman’s pictures, he said most of the memorabilia and mail going in and out of the house did not generate income. “What

you have to understand is Gordie is not a regular businessman. People are going to send him ungodly amounts of fan mail and we get every charity in the world asking for money. They ask for autographed pictures for their auctions and private groups trying to raise money for their hockey teams. We do all that stuff, and if it comes to the house that doesn’t mean it’s a sale or business or something like that.”

Smith, the Howes’ lawyer, is even less inclined to rehash things. He sniffs at the Dorfmans’ complaints that he used Howe’s profile to smear them in the media, or that the Sept. 18 lawsuit and the ensuing media coverage ignored months of effort on the Dorfmans’ part to resolve the issue in person, or through legitimate channels. “He had his chance to prove this stuff in court,” says Smith, “and he folded his tent.”

For a guy who supposedly folded his tent, Dorfman doesn’t sound particularly contrite. Smith’s logic could be turned on its head, he points out: the Howe camp was forced to negotiate because their suit lacked merit (Lennon, in his courtfiled response, pointed out that two of the claims in the suit do not exist in Michigan law). Lionel hasn’t spoken to Howe since the swearing incident in December 2006, but triumphantly reports that Howe no longer appears to be running merchandise through his house. “It’s been so much nicer since they brought that suit against us,” he says. “They’ve shaped up.”

Under the circumstances, you might think Lionel would be well advised to cut his losses, to even let Howe believe he’s won. But after 40-odd years of building his own reputation— not as an icon, but at least as an upstanding man—he refuses to give Mr. Hockey the last word. “I like the way my wife said it. I don’t want the legacy I leave to my kids to be one of shame because we’re known as windowpeepers or voyeuristic stalkers. We aren’t. This really stinks, because I’ve done some things in my life I can be proud of.” M