Thousands of people flooded into Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena to pay their final respects to the man known as Mr. Hockey.
The public visitation for Gordie Howe, who died last week at the age of 88, drew legends and lamentations.
Throughout the day and evening, a crowd consistently lined the walls of the Joe Louis Arena, waiting to enter the rink where Gordie Howe once received a four minute standing ovation at an All-Star game.
On this day, Howe’s body lies in repose here.
But the memory of both his tough, fast playing style and his congenial manner off the ice brought 32-year-old Leah Barteriam from St. Clair Shores for a final moment with Mr. Hockey.
“He didn’t mess around and at the same time he was a class act. He wasn’t a jerk. He showed us what an athlete should be. And there’s a lot of people that could take cues from him nowadays,” she said.
The crowd was dotted with Red Wings jerseys bearing the number nine Howe made famous.
That includes Ken Brown, who said he drove more than three hours from Hamilton, Ontario to get here.
He was armed with both a decades-old autograph from Howe and the memory of Mr. Hockey being a regular topic in the Montreal home where Brown grew up.
“I was Red Wing fan. Very hard to be, in Montreal,” Brown said. “But Gordie made it easy. He was my childhood hero, basically. And the Red Wings touched my heart pretty deeply. So I said I had to be here. There was just no way that I was gonna miss this.”
Further down the line circling the outside of the Joe, Farmington Hills’ Dennis Young straightens a red number nine pin on his suit.
Like almost everyone here, the 65-year-old Young has a Gordie story.
Young said he worked with Howe and his wife on business deals. During one meal together, Young said he quickly found out how down to earth the hockey legend was.
“Gordie looked at my wife and he said, ‘Joyce you say you grew up on a farm?’’ She said yeah and he said, ‘I used to get up every morning and go out and get a dozen eggs. And come in the house and cook ‘em all up for breakfast, 12 eggs.’
Young says he exchanged looks with his wife and Mrs. Hockey, Colleen Howe, thinking, “Well what does that have to do with anything?
“‘Well I just thought she was from a farm, I’d tell her that,’ he said Howe answered. “But that was Gordie, you know. Whatever he could relate to you about.
The tales took on a more subdued tone inside the arena, where some of hockey’s best-known stars hugged each other while telling stories about Howe.
Foremost among them was The Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky,
As a rookie Gretzky played in a 1980 All-Star game with Howe, who was in the last year of a career that spanned five decades.
Gretzky said he may be called great, but there’s no question in his mind who was the greatest hockey player ever on the ice, or the nicest gentleman off of it.
Gretzky said he believes Howe’s stellar play elevated the entire sport in the eyes of Americans.
“Gordie Howe coming to Detroit really changed the landscape of hockey in the United States. Gordie Howe sort of paved that road,” Gretzky said.
Thousands of the fans who shared that journey with Howe filed past his closed casket in the arena’s bowl area, then exited past a statue dedicated to Mr. Hockey.
Some took selfies with it. Others signed a wall outside the arena, writing their remembrances of Howe.
And there were tears.
Fan Marilyn Barry, for one, dried her eyes on the sleeve of her Gordie Howe jersey and winced at the thought that she’d just said goodbye to a part of her life.
“Oh it was very, very emotional. Very heartwarming (but) sad,” Barry said. “I got to hug Mark Howe, so that made me cry. I told him I met his father four times. He said ‘That’s wonderful, you’ll have those memories.’ I said yes. Forever.”
So will all of those who crossed paths with Gordie Howe, whether they felt the wrath of his famous elbows during a game or experienced the warmth of his generous spirit afterwards.