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Washington -- Johan Franzen remembers the first time he met Gordie Howe, when Franzen was a rookie in the NHL in the 2005-06 season.

Franzen was returning from a knee injury and he found a sympathetic comrade in Howe, who was in the locker room that day.

"He told me to come over and feel his knees," Franzen said of Howe. "There was nothing left (in the knees)."

The news of Howe, 86, having a stroke this week was disappointing to hear around the Red Wings locker room, as many of the veteran players and coach Mike Babcock have gotten close to him over the years.

Howe is recuperating in Texas with family.

Howe and many of the Red Wings alumni are a common sight at Joe Louis Arena. With its Original Six status, the link to the past is strong and can been seen and felt through the likes of Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio, among others.

"They come in on practice days, game days, and they sit in the meetings; a few of the guys still have stalls with their names up," captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "It's cool to have them around and talk to them."

Zetterberg was nervous when he first met Howe, but remembers how the legend was able to make the experience calm and easy.

"He always came in to joke around with the guys and kept it really simple and easy," Zetterberg said. "I was real young when I first met him, I was little nervous, but he made it a lot easier than I thought it would be."

For Babcock, the opportunity to get to know Howe has been a unique experience, as both men grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Babcock played in the Gordie Howe Bowl, a football field in town, played hockey with Bruce Clarke (Gordie's nephew), and met Howe when the Red Wings legend was in town visiting and Babcock was a teenager.

"He wouldn't remember, but I was a just a kid; I was just one of the kids to come over and get a look at Gordie Howe," Babcock said. "That was a special thing.

"Since coming here, I've gotten to know him and his son still works for us (Mark Howe, director of pro scouting). I feel privileged to have built a relationship with him.

"I've been a fan forever. To get a chance to coach the Red Wings, and have him come down to the office on a regular basis, it's been special to say the least."

Babcock said that when Howe did visit the office, he was quick to point out things that didn't measure up to his standards.

"He'd let you know if he didn't like the way the team played," Babcock said, adding, "He's a real good man. Real fun to be around. He loves hockey and and he's called Mr. Hockey for a reason."

Howe scored 801 goals and 1,850 points playing 26 years in the NHL, before retiring at the age of 52. By playing one shift with the Detroit Vipers in the International Hockey League in 1997, Howe played professionally for a sixth decade.

That accomplishment, said Babcock, will likely not be duplicated.

"For sure he's one of the greatest of all time," Babcock said. "You can't play as long as he did as good as he did unless you're a special player."

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

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