Niyo: Gretzky, sports legends bid Gordie Howe farewell

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — The fans started shuffling in at 9 a.m. sharp, just like the elbows of the hockey legend they came to honor. And though the doors to Joe Louis Arena were scheduled to close at 9 p.m. — a numerical tribute mirrored by all the No. 9 jerseys dotting the red carpet inside Joe Louis Arena — Gordie Howe’s family, aware that well-wishers had waited hours to pay their respects, said they’d stay until the last person was left.

So would No. 99, Wayne Gretzky — the “Great One” — who stood off to the side from morning until night in this makeshift cathedral and spoke eloquently about the gentle giant he called a “second father.” And about what it meant for Gordie Howe’s sons — Mark and Murray and Marty were all there shaking hands and greeting visitors, along with their sister Cathy — to ask him to be a pallbearer for Tuesday’s procession.

“It’s one of the great honors of my life,” said Gretzky, one of the most decorated professional athletes in history. “He was everything to me.”

As Gretzky talked Tuesday, about first impressions and lasting memories, about Howe nearly breaking his bones and Gretzky sheepishly breaking his records, he kept circling back to that same sentiment — what a wonderful man and mentor Howe had been in his life.

“Listen, I was really lucky,” said Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer and still one of the great ambassadors in any sport. “Not everybody gets to meet their hero or their idol. And sometimes when you meet them it isn’t as good as you thought it’d be. But, man, I got so lucky the guy I chose happened to be so special.”

And, boy, he sure had company, didn’t he?

Fans share cherished memories of Howe

Gretzky was joined by his father, Walter, fellow Hall of Famers Scotty Bowman and Steve Yzerman, Tigers great Al Kaline, Red Wings officials and others as a two-day farewell to Howe, who passed away Friday at the age of 88, began with Tuesday’s public visitation. But even they marveled at the crowd it drew, from all walks of life, some pushed by their kids in wheelchairs and others pushed by their parents in strollers.

“Wherever I go, anywhere in the world, and people talk about the Red Wings, they talk about Gordie Howe,” said Yzerman, the Red Wings’ revered former captain who is second only to Howe in goals and points in franchise history. “They really do. Go anywhere and people from Gordie’s generation, they tell you how they got into hockey, why they became Red Wing fans, was because of Gordie Howe.”

By noon, what began as a single-file line had doubled in length and breadth, stretching across the arena floor, past the Olympia Club and out the doors along the riverfront, wrapping around an old building that once roared in its infancy for a retiring All-Star but now was quiet and dark.

It stayed that way all day, but for the spotlight shining down from the rafters on the banners commemorating Howe’s retired jersey and the four Stanley Cups he helped win during a remarkable quarter-century run in Detroit. Howe’s casket was just below, surrounded by roses — the display in front from Red Wings owners Mike and Marian Ilitch and son Chris — and flanked by photos and memorabilia commemorating his life and hockey career.

Some fans wiped away tears as they moved slowly past. Others clutched autographed photos or other mementos. A security guard assured anyone who asked that it was OK to stop to touch the casket and say a prayer if they wished. It was, as 68-year-old Randy Dennis of Redford, one of the scores in line before the arena doors opened, told me, “A chance to remember somebody we’ll never forget.”

And how could they, really?

“Not very many people and not very many towns can say they had the greatest in their city,” said Kaline, who arrived in Detroit in the middle of Howe’s hockey heyday — the early ’50s — and grew to be close friends with his All-Star contemporary. “And Gordie Howe was the greatest.”

The Great One certainly wasn’t arguing that point Tuesday, as the 55-year-old Gretzky flashed through his own mental scrapbook, rattling off cherished memories that go back a half-century, long before he broke his scoring records. Feats that left Gretzky admittedly “embarrassed” with Mr. Hockey, who’d played a different game in a different era, along for the ride, cheering the whole way.

There was the Howe jersey he received as a gift as a 5-year-old — “Still the best Christmas present I ever got,” he smiled – and the request he used to make every time he went to the barber as a child. (“I want a Gordie Howe haircut,” he’d say.) And then there was the first time he met his idol as a 10-year-old, the night they took that iconic photo of Howe seated next to a sharp-dressed young man — “My first suit,” Gretzky chuckled — with a hockey stick hooked around his neck, both of them grinning.

Gretzky recalled the time he was asked to join Howe and Bobby Hull on a junket for the World Hockey Association after turning pro at the age of 17. They went to breakfast and dinner, even chatted with Muhammad Ali in a hotel lobby. But what Gretzky treasured most was fatherly advice he received from Howe.

“He said, ‘You worked hard to get to the professional level, but now you’ve got to work even that much harder,’” Gretzky said. “So many guys who turn pro sort of forget about that. But that’s the one thing he told me that always stuck in my brain.”

There are others, of course. Like that first pro season when he skated against Howe, who’d come out of retirement to play with his sons in the WHA. Howe was 50 by then, and the old man kept winking at Gretzky in pregame warmups. Then a few shifts into the game, the kid stole the puck from Howe.

“And before I knew it, this big stick just pounded me on the hand — I thought I broke my thumb — and he took it back and said, ‘Don’t ever take the puck from me,’” Gretzky said, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘OK!’”

Afterward, he asked Gary Smith, the veteran goalie who was twice his age, what to make of it: “I said, ‘I don’t understand, Gordie was winking the whole warmup at me.’ Gary said, ‘Winking? Wayne, he’s got a blinking problem!’ I said, ‘Well, nobody told me that!’”

But some things you just learn, and if there was a lesson here in this surreal scene of greatness and grief and gratitude, with Hall of Famers shaking hands and sharing hugs with the hoi polloi, and Gordie Howe’s great-grandchildren dancing playfully around Peepaw’s statue on the JLA concourse, that’d be it, I think.

Dennis remembers his first game at the old Olympia Stadium in 1956 — and the Howe autograph he snagged afterward — like it was yesterday. But he treasures even more a chance encounter at a charity event decades later, when he nervously struck up a conversation with his hero, introduced him to his father and then listened to the two of them chat for 20 minutes or more.

“Bragged about that ‘till the day he died,” Dennis said of his dad.

And this was Howe’s legacy, more than any hat tricks or hockey lore. That a legend never grew tired of the crowds, and always had time for the masses.

“He never thought it was a burden,” Gretzky said. “He just thought it was part of his life. He was Gordie Howe, and he understood it. And he probably understood who he was better than anybody.”

Howe funeral Wednesday

Gordie Howe's funeral is Wednesday from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, 9844 Woodward, in Detroit. While the service is open to the public, the Wings stress that there is very limited space.

Live coverage, video and photos at detroitnews.com.