Wojo: This was how Mr. Hockey should depart

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Pallbearers carry Gordie Howe’s casket to the hearse following the service Wednesday afternoon at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit.

Detroit — He brought out everyone, from regular folks to royalty. One final time, Mr. Hockey was a man of the masses, among the masses, from the thousands who paid their respects at Joe Louis Arena to the hundreds who attended his funeral.

This was perfect, precisely how Gordie Howe should depart. He was a man without borders or barriers, who bridged generations and demographics. Everyone knew him, or knew of him. Everyone seemed to have met him at least once, at a book signing, a charity event, or a chance encounter at the airport.

Since Howe’s passing last Friday, right up until his funeral Mass at The Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit on Wednesday, the stories have flowed, from hockey luminaries such as Scotty Bowman, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman and Guy Lafleur, to baseball’s Mr. Detroit, Al Kaline. Near as I can tell, listening to fans and friends, strangers and stars, there were three common themes about Howe.

He was kind. He was humorous. And he was gracious enough to let as many people as possible into his circle of goodness, and greatness.

“He was eternally positive, always had a smile on his face and a song on his lips,” said Murray Howe, one of Gordie’s four children. “He never had a bad word to say about anyone — except for the refs.”

The crowd in the church laughed and clapped, which pretty much are the sounds of Howe’s life. Murray delivered the official eulogy, but many others were recited the past five days.

An attendee of Wednesday’s funeral service holds a program for the event. Many luminaries attended the proceedings.

By the end of the service, it was overwhelming for the Howe family. Most had stood for hours and greeted fans at the visitation the day before, and all the wonderful stories were uplifting, until the reality struck there would be no more. Mark Howe stood on the steps of the church, a short distance from the hearse parked on Woodward, and tried mightily to explain the feeling.

“A lot of people are seeing the outpouring of love for the first time, but we’ve seen it our whole lives,” he said. “It’s just hard, no matter how much you know this day is coming. I’m extremely thankful Dad was able to hold on so long at the end. I really wanted to be with him. I was rubbing his forehead when he went …”

Mark Howe stopped, tried to swallow the sobs but couldn’t, and the tears streamed as he stepped away with an apology.

‘Not gonna be the same’

As hockey dignitaries filed into and out of the church, the sentiments never varied. There were current Red Wings such as Dylan Larkin and Gustav Nyquist, and former Wings such as Chris Chelios, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby. Gary Bettman and Mike Babcock attended, as did Chris Ilitch, representing the Ilitch family.

“Gordie built the NHL,” former Canadiens great Lafleur said. “I was always impressed by his stature and his love of the game. He was great to us younger guys, and he always said, enjoy it because it goes by so fast.”

If a man can live a fast, full 88 years, it was Gordie. In 25 seasons with the Wings, in an NHL career that didn’t end until 1980 when he was 52, Mr. Hockey pulled off the impossible. He was the greatest all-around player — scorer, playmaker and tough guy — and commanded immense respect from adversaries even as he wielded his mighty elbows.

“He’s the only guy that could draw this big a crowd,” Gretzky said. “Everybody loved him, even the guys he elbowed and knocked their teeth out, they still had nice things to say about him.”

Gretzky chuckled, which is what everyone does when they tell a Howe story. And everyone, it seems, has a Howe story.

The more you hear, the more you wonder if a modern-day athlete could ever touch so many people, so deeply.

Friends, family, fans honor 'great man' Gordie Howe

Gretzky said, “Hockey’s not gonna be the same, the world’s not gonna be the same without Gordie,” and in a way, he’s right.

In the world we once knew, sports heroes weren’t separated from the public by differences in income, or adulation. Humility was considered the most admirable trait, and there were no entourages to erect barriers. That’s not even a slam on current stars. Because of money and fame and the intrusion of social media, barriers are almost a necessity.

Not when Gordie ruled. Not when he stood in the same line with others to get his favorite fish and chips in Windsor, or when he played in charity events into his 70s and made everyone feel as if he was their greatest teammate or greatest friend. He tried to do it all, right up until the time he could do no more because of the stroke and other ailments.

“Dad always said, ‘If it’s not fun, it’s time to do something else,’ ” Murray Howe said. “So we filled his final days by surrounding him with family and friends, and he knew he was loved. Mr. Hockey left the world with no regrets.”

Toughness with class

Well past 9 p.m. Tuesday, fans were still filing past Howe’s casket, and the lines had wrapped around Joe Louis Arena for most of the 12-hour visitation. The Red Wings did it perfectly, and the scene was magnificent. A red carpet stretched the length of the ice and ended at the casket, with Howe’s retired No. 9 sweater illuminated above. From up in the seats, the carpet and the shrine looked like a bright red cross, surrounded by darkness.

Fans waited upward of 90 minutes for a chance to say a prayer, greet the Howes and touch the casket. There were men carrying infants and older ladies pushing oxygen carts. There were kids in their teens wearing No. 9 jerseys, and longtime buddies reminiscing.

“He was a tough player but he wasn’t a brute,” said Plymouth’s Victor Moise, 59. “It wasn’t like he was an intimidator or someone with no class. You name the great players — Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux — all were skilled guys, nobody had that level of toughness. Here’s a man embraced as a Detroiter, but he was really a farm boy from Canada. He bridged not only generations, but countries.”

He will literally bridge it, too, with the construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge from Detroit to Windsor. There are other ways to commemorate Howe and they’re worthy ideas. Gretzky, who wore 99 in honor of No. 9, suggested the NHL retire the number from all teams. Others want the new Little Caesars Arena changed to the Gordie Howe Arena.

Actually, I believe Gordie would be just fine with this honor, with heartfelt tributes from all walks of hockey and life, with a trail of stories and memories as long as his career, and as sharp as his elbows.

“It’s a sad day,” Bowman said, as he walked slowly from the church. “I can’t believe how many people came. There’ll never be another like him. I don’t think we even realize he did so much.”

The enormity of Howe’s longevity is staggering, even still. There were no hollow years or empty spaces, the time filled by interactions large and small. That’s why so many people came, and why so many will never forget.