Howe always had time for the fans

Holly Fournier and Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Ken Sucher of Rochester Hills signs a giant card for the Howe family outside of Joe Louis Arena.

Detroit — Thousands of fans decked out in Red Wings gear lined up at Joe Louis Arena Tuesday for a chance to say goodbye to Mr. Hockey.

Gordie Howe died Friday at age 88. The team and Howe's family opened his visitation to the public Tuesday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., so that fans and fellow NHL legends could pay their last respects.

Mobile users can go HERE to see live video from Howe's public visitation.

The Great One and Mr. Hockey

Wayne Gretzky stepped to the side during the early hours of visitation, to reminisce about the man he called greater than himself.

“He was the greatest player, ever,” Gretzky said. “I say this all the time: Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe, you can pick who you think is better.

“I happen to be a little biased because I was a forward, so I’ll take Gordie.”

But Howe’s character was especially on display off the ice, Gretzky said.

“More importantly, he was the nicest guy I ever met,” Gretzky said. “He was a special guy. He never asked for anything from anybody, but he would do anything for anyone.”

Gretzky recalled an encounter with Howe at a breakfast in New York, shortly after turning pro. He said the encounter bore no resemblance to the old cliché of meeting idols who turn out to be less than anticipated.

“When I met Gordie, he was bigger and better — and nicer. He was everything and more than I ever imagined him to be,” Gretzky said. “He just had a way about him, whether he was talking to my father or one of the waitresses at the dinner or the prime minister: He had a way with being able to talk to anybody and everybody and put everybody at ease.

“He was genuinely that nice -- just a really good person."

But 17-year-old Gretzky also was privy to Howe’s trademark mean streak on the ice, he said.

“The third or fourth shift into the game I took the puck from him, and before I knew it this big stick just pounded me on the hand. I thought it broke my thumb,” Gretzky said. “(Howe) took the puck back and said don’t ever take the puck from me. And I’m like, 'OK!'”

Years later, Gretzky quietly reflected on his own career and the honors he has enjoyed. Tuesday’s visitation topped the list, he said.

“You know, I’ve been lucky in my lifetime. I got to be part of hosting the Queen, my wife and I got to meet Pope John Paul, I got to light the torch at the Vancouver Olympic Games,” Grezky said, looking toward Howe’s casket. “They were all great honors, but when (Howe’s sons) asked me to be a pallbearer today, it was pretty special.”

Wayne Gretzky talks to the media Tuesday at the public visitation for Gordie Howe at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

More from Gretzky

Howe’s family and close friends held a private, open-casket viewing in Toledo on Sunday.

“He looked good,” Gretzky said.

Gretzky on Tuesday reminisced on Howe’s career, including a switch to the center position during his lengthy career spanning five decades.

“Gordie said, ‘If I had known playing center was so easy, I could have played another 30 years,’” Gretzky said.

As Gretzky spoke to media in the shadows beside Howe’s casket, members of the public filed by and up a set of stairs to the concourse level. An older man paused at the foot of the steps, unsure if he should opt for an elevator.

“I’m debating,” he said to an usher offering help. “Oh, Gordie would have done it.”

The man headed for the stairs, determined like the idol he came to honor.

First in line

Bud Somerville of Westland arrived alone at the Joe Louis Arena around 11:30 p.m. Monday, he said. He was first in line.

“I wasn’t missing this,” he said Tuesday morning, shortly before visitation began. “When your all-time heroes start leaving us, it’s time to pay your respects.”

Fans filed into the cavernous Joe along a red carpet, in complete silence. As the morning progressed to early afternoon, one line transformed into two, slowly leading toward Howe’s dark brown casket, positioned at the far end of The Joe, draped in red roses.

Howe's retired jersey was lowered from the rafters and positioned directly over his casket, flanked by each of his four Stanley Cup championship banners. All were lit up by spotlights.

Family and close friends sat in chairs to the right of the closed casket, while hockey dignitaries congregated to the left, behind a table of memorabilia.

'Best bruises I ever got'

Outside the arena earlier Tuesday, Somerville recounted his own encounters with Mr. Hockey, who he met “hundreds of times” at games inside Olympia Stadium.

“Back then, when the players came off the ice they had to walk through the crowd,” Somerville said. “Gordie made it a point to smack as many kids as he could in the leg with his stick, and I was fortunate enough to be smacked many times. 

“Best bruises I ever got.”

Somerville said he had a more personal meeting with Howe around 10 years ago at a book signing.

“I’ve got a picture like he was wrapping (his stick) around my neck, taking me out. That was one of the best times,” Somerville said. “He was the greatest hockey player that ever lived and the nicest man I’ve ever met.

“Nobody compared to him.”

'Such a great person' 

Don Miller, 60, stood a few fans back in line from Somerville, dressed in a faded, throwback Howe jersey. The Livonia resident also met Howe several times from prime seats directly behind the bench at Olympia Stadium.

“I’d run up and down and hand out towels and water during the games,” he said. “Howe was such a great person, who happened to be a great hockey player.”

Sue Kalder of Dearborn said she has been a Red Wings fan for decades. Her parents had season tickets when she was growing up, and occasionally she would see Howe hanging around Joe Louis Arena. 

“I met Gordie Howe a few times, met him as a teenager and got his autograph,” she said while waiting in line to view the casket. “I met him a couple years ago when his book came out.”

Howe signed the book for her mother’s birthday and personalized it. He was just that kind of man, Kalder said.

“(It’s) just paying your respects,” she said of attending the visitation Tuesday.

The humble superstar

Bill Addis first met Gordie Howe when their sons played peewee hockey in the same league. Now 90, the Eastpointe resident knew he wanted to come down and pay his respects to the man he knew not as a star, but as a hockey dad and friend. 

“I used to watch the games with him. My wife and his wife would sit together. We’d talked about hockey. I’m not sure what our wives talked about,” said Addis, who was accompanied by his daughter Sandy Schelosky of St. Clair Shores. 

“Gordie said my brother (Cliff) was one of the best goalies he’d ever seen,” said Schelosky, as she stood in line with her father.

She vowed that she would get her father to the visitation, even if they had to wait an hour in line to do so. It was that important to him.

“I never met a guy like him,” Addis said. “He was the biggest star and you’d never know it.”

Nearly two hours later, Addis and Schelosky emerged from the viewing area, thankful they had made the trip. The pair met and spoke briefly with Howe's sons, Mark and Marty, who played peewee hockey with Addis' sons so many years ago. 

They remembered, Addis said.

Only jersey is Howe's No. 9

For Red Wings fan Tim Gass of Waterford, attending the visitation was a special day for him and his son, 2-year-old Brendan. The toddler was named for former Red Wing Brendan Shanahan.

“I grew up with my dad taking me to all the Original Six arenas to see the other teams play the Red Wings,” the 42-year-old said as he stood in line. The only jersey he owns is Gordie Howe’s No 9, he added.

The Gass family includes three generations of Red Wings fans with three generations of Red Wing heroes, Gass said.

Howe was his father Richard’s idol, Gass grew up watching Steve Yzerman and he is hopeful that his son will get to enjoy many years of stardom from Dylan Larkin. That’s also why he wanted to bring the youngster to the visitation.

“It’s Gordie,” said Gass, getting choked up. “He won’t remember this today but he can always say he’s been here.”

The public visitation was modeled after Howe's relationship with his fans, according to his family.

“Gordie always had a special connection with the fans, so it was important to us to allow the public into the funeral service because it’s the way he would have done it,” said Mark Howe, Gordie’s son and a former Red Wings defenseman.

Missouri to Michigan

Charles McCann traveled from a long way, north of Kansas City, but that didn’t matter.

McCann was intent on coming to Detroit to pay his last respects to Gordie Howe.

“I’ve been a hockey fan for a long time,” said McCann, from St. Joseph, Mo. “This is the place to be.”

McCann remembers watching Howe play in 1980 in St. Louis, while Howe was with the Hartford Whalers, and the impact it left.

“There had been talk all day he had the flu, he was sick, there was some question whether he’d play,” McCann said.  “But not to disappoint all the people who had come to see him, he was there.”

There was a steady flow of fans paying respects to Howe Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena. Howe’s family members received fans.

McCann was impressed with the entire day.

“It shows what kind of person he was,” McCann said. “He was kind to people. A great player. Great relationships throughout his life. This is the time when you see that.

“The event here was exceptionally well done. Just a really nice memorial.”

‘I would not miss this’

Catherine Nardi only had so much time during her lunch hour downtown.

Still, she wasn’t going to miss this.

“I would not miss this,” Nardi said. “Gordie needs to light the light in heaven now.”

Nardi, 55, of Garden City, said she received a piece of signed memorabilia several years ago.

“A signed pool tile,” Nardi said.

She said a business associate owned a pool company that put in the tiles at Howe’s pool. He asked Howe to sign a few tiles, and he gave one to Nardi.

“I’m a huge hockey fan and Gordie is the ultimate to me,” Nardi said. “What he’s given to the city of Detroit and the game of hockey, there’s nothing like it.”

Big night

Neil Stolman remembers being at the Olympia the evening Howe broke Maurice Richard’s goal-scoring record (544).

Stolman can remember he had goosebumps at the 1963 game.

“I’ll never forget that experience,” said Stolman, a Farmington Hills native. “The celebration lasted for 15 to 20 minutes and it would just not end. Gordie kept trying to acknowledge the crowd, hoping it would stop and the game could resume.

“But every time he did that, they would cheer more.”

Stolman figures he watched over 300 of Howe’s games in the NHL at the Olympia and he’s come to a conclusion.

“He was the best player,” Stolman said. “All the aspects of his game. The dirty stuff, he would do. There wasn’t any player who combined the toughness and skill that Gordie had.

“To me, he was one of the top five athletes I ever saw.”

Stolman, too, was overwhelmed by Tuesday’s event.

“It was great of Gordie’s family to do this,” Stolman said.

Funeral follows on Wednesday

The visitation will be followed by an 11 a.m. funeral Wednesday at Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Detroit. It also is open to the public, but fans are encouraged to pay their respects Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena. 

Most Blessed Sacrament seats approximately 850, said Joe Kohn, director of public relations for the archdiocese of Detroit. Most of those seats will be reserved for Howe's family and friends, as well as other hockey dignitaries, Red Wings officials said.

The service will be presided by Fr. J.J. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to one of the following charitable organizations:

• The Gordie Howe Traumatic Brain Injury Initiative (ghi4tbi.org or mail a check to ProMedica Foundations, 5217 Monroe St., Suite A-1, Toledo, Ohio 43623);

• The Howe Foundation (3128 Walton Blvd., #255, Rochester Hills, MI, 48309);

• The Gordie Howe Fund for Alzheimer’s Research (Saskatoon Community Foundation, 101-308 Fourth Ave. North, Saskatoon, SK Canada, S7K 2L7).