Detroit — His name was Gordie Howe and he wore the No. 9.
But to his fans, he was Mr. Hockey.
Howe’s death early Friday at age 88 prompted lifelong Red Wings fans to remember the man who played in five decades and won four Stanley Cups.
“I don’t know why, but I wanted to walk down to this area,” Detroiter Richard Ramsdell said, standing underneath the Fox Theatre marquee and near the Hockeytown Cafe. “I wanted to get the feel of it, I guess.”
As he spoke, a black and white tribute flashed onto the marquee, depicting a young Howe alongside the words, “Thank you, Mr. Hockey.”
“I was hoping to see (Howe) inaugurate that arena someday,” Ramsdell said, gesturing up the street to the new stadium, still under construction.
During a Red Wings game about 10 years ago, Ramsdell stumbled upon Gordie Howe giving a stick-handling lesson to a young boy, he said.
“It was just something that stuck in my mind. He was so patient; it just seemed so natural for him to be taking the time,” Ramsdell said. “You could tell the boy didn’t know who he was, but his parents sure did.”
After the impromptu lesson, Ramsdell, now 78, gathered to courage to approach Howe. Awestruck, he barely managed introductions, he said.
“I shook hands with him,” Ramsdell said. “But I couldn’t get anything out except ‘Mr. Hockey.’ ”
Detroiter Nick Thornton, 37, said his father raised him to be a Howe fan from a young age.
“It was stuff I heard from my dad, just that (Howe) was really tough and exciting to watch,” Thornton said.
He added that Howe’s death was “a little shocking” after more recent news reports indicated the former player was recovering well from a series of strokes.
“He was a legend, and you don’t get many legends,” Thornton said. “He was Mr. Hockey in Hockeytown. It’s a huge loss.”
Reaction also has poured in from officials in all corners of the state, including Red Wings brass, politicians and other sports figures:
■ Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch: “Today is a sad day for the Detroit Red Wings and the entire hockey world as together we mourn the loss of one of the greatest hockey players of all time. The Red Wings organization and the National Hockey League would not be what they are today without Gordie Howe. There is no nickname more fitting for him than ‘Mr. Hockey.’ He embodied on and off the ice what it meant to be both a Red Wing and a Detroiter. He was tough, skilled, and consistently earned success at the highest level. His achievements are numerous and his accomplishments immeasurable. It is truly a blessing to have had him both in our organization and our city for so many years. He will be deeply missed.”
■ Red Wings general manager Ken Holland: “Gordie Howe was an incredible ambassador for the game of hockey. He was as fierce and competitive as they come but away from the rink he was truly engaging and personable and always enjoyed his interaction with the fans. Gordie set the standard for this franchise during the Original Six era, winning four Stanley Cups, capturing numerous awards and setting an abundance of league records. We will miss Mr. Hockey, who was the greatest Red Wing of all time. Our deepest sympathies go out to Mark, Marty, Murray, Cathy and the rest of the Howe family during this difficult time.”
■ Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg: “To me, he is Detroit. The thing that really stands out was, he made it easy. He made it so easy. You’re talking with him, and you’re thinking to yourself ‘This is Mr. Hockey’, but he joked and smiled and he made the conversation pretty easy.
“You’re kind of nervous, you don’t know what to expect, but he just talked with you and you made you feel comfortable and that meant a lot.”
■ Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin: “A guy like Mr. Howe, you see his popularity in Detroit and all the things he accomplished and his popularity, how people love him and how highly people think of him, it really leaves an impact.
“You know about the Stanley Cups he won and all he did (in hockey), but just the way he treated people, it was pretty amazing.”
■ Gov. Rick Snyder: “Gordie Howe will forever be remembered as ‘Mr. Hockey,’ but he could also be known as ‘Mr. Detroit’ or ‘Mr. Michigan’ for the years of thrills he gave Red Wings fans in our state and around the world. He represented Detroit with pride and class. In a city that cherishes its many champions, Howe was perhaps the most beloved.
“Howe became universally respected for his tough play and durability in a career that spanned decades, setting records that stood for years, and some that likely will never be broken. After eventually hanging up the skates, Howe continued living in Michigan and served as an ambassador for his sport and Detroit.
“His legacy in Michigan will carry on through the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will stand as a united symbol between his home country and his adopted country, representing the teamwork he always embodied.
“Sue and I extend our condolences to the Howe family, and also a heartfelt thank you to a legend who epitomized the word ‘champion’ on and off the ice.”
■ Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan: “Few sports figures were more beloved, more idolized than Gordie Howe, a man whose greatness went far beyond the rink. He will be remembered as much for his kindness off the ice as for how he was feared on it during his incomparable career with the Red Wings. No one played the game harder or better. Our entire city mourns the passing of this great man, and our hearts go out to his friends and family and all who loved Mr. Hockey.”
■ Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak: “Like for so many, for my brother Carl and me, Gordie Howe was one of our greatest heroes growing up. As kids we enjoyed often taking a bus and a street car to then climb up the many stairs into the balcony of the Olympia to see Gordie’s magic. I can still remember, as clearly as yesterday, some of his goals that only Gordie Howe could have accomplished.”
■ Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company: “Throughout life, when asked who my role models were, I always replied Henry Ford and Gordie Howe. Growing up, his picture hung on my wall and when attending his Gordie Howe Hockeyland school in St. Clair Shores, he made a personal effort to know every player by name. His passing is profoundly sad to the entire community, yet I am grateful for his deep friendship over the years.”
■ Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio: “I just know him as a legend. It’s a tragedy when our country loses legends … it’s a part of our lives, growing up with them.”
■ Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh: “Never had a chance to meet Gordie Howe. Would have loved to. Muhammad Ali the greatest and Gordie Howe is the greatest. Muhammad Ali infused a whole world with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind and Gordie infused a toughness unknown to mankind. Both of those men have been heroes of mine and my family, all of us. Sorry to hear that news.”
■ Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson: "We're all saddened by the news. We knew this was coming but still the reality sets in, that a player like Gordie Howe doesn't come around this often, a player that plays as well and as long as he did. He may have been the most well rounded athletic player that I've ever seen. I got to play with him and against him and I got to know him really well after we both retired."
■ Steve Yzerman, former Red Wings captain and current Tampa Bay Lightning vice president and general manager: "It was very saddening to hear the news of Gordie's passing this morning. He has been an icon not only in Detroit, but throughout the entire hockey world for as long as I can remember. As one of the greatest players to ever play in the NHL, the majority of his career being in Detroit, it was an honor to wear the same uniform, spend time with, laugh, joke and seek advice from him. Gordie's humility and kindness left a permanent impression on me, greatly influencing how I tried to conduct myself throughout my career.
“His impact on the Red Wings organization is still evident today. I travel the world and constantly hear stories from people who love the Wings and share memories of the glory days when Gordie and his teammates ruled the NHL. For all players fortunate enough to play for the Wings, we should take time to thank and honor Gordie, for he is a significant reason why Detroit is such a special place to play.
“To Gordie's surviving family, I offer my sincere condolences, in particular to his son Mark, my former teammate and colleague, who cannot help but remind me of his father every time I see him."
■ NASCAR driver and Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski: “Being in Detroit it is a huge deal if you are from this area, his passing. I know he lived really close to me when I was growing up and it is a big deal for all my friends and family. That is a guy that left a tremendous legacy on his sport. I am thinking about him and his family.
“He retired before I had a chance to really be a hockey fan but just being a Detroit person in general I don’t think you can group up in this area and not be a hockey fan of the Red Wings. Looking at that, I think he had more than just the respect of just his community. He had the respect of his entire sport which is hard to do for anyone. He had such admiration from the fan base and it has been almost 40 years since he retired. That really says something about someone.”
■ NHL play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick: “Gordie’s personality, his character, and how he served as an ambassador for the league. Gordie was a major reason why many who weren’t athletes still loved the sport. They shook that hand, got one of those legible autographs, and for a few seconds fashioned a lifetime memory.
“Like the sport he played, Gordie Howe was a mixture of imposing brawn and polite character. There were generations of fans who bought tickets to see “Mr. Hockey” and playing in five different decades, there were also generations of players who so admired his skill that they too wore No. 9.”
■ NBC hockey analyst Mike Milbury: “Gordie Howe was ‘Mr. Hockey’ because he was the embodiment of all the qualities we admire in a player – skilled, beyond tough, durable, reliable and team-oriented. More importantly, and what made him most endearing, was that he was simply a very nice guy.”
■ NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire: “Gordie Howe is probably the most iconic No. 9 of all time,a long with Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Bobby Hull. Gordie was the personification of the power forward position – he was fast, rugged, skilled, and dominated the game. He was feared by his opponents, and respected by his teammates.
“I got to know Gordie during my time as the head coach of the Hartford Whalers, and as fierce as he was on the ice, he was a better gentleman off the ice. It was a pleasure and privilege to know him and his family, and he’ll be missed by the National Hockey League and the entire hockey community.”
Staff Writer James Hawkins contributed.