Fans share cherished memories of Howe

Al Willman, Holly Fournier, Ted Kulfan and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Hockey fans descended on Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday to pay their respects to Gordie Howe, who died last Friday at the age of 88.

Some recalled Mr. Hockey’s talent on the ice, while more shared their memories of Howe, the man.

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The lengthy line to see the hockey icon was capped just before 9 p.m.

The last two to get the chance were Glynn Robitaille of Northville and his 18-year-old son.

For Robitaille, the prospect of waiting to pay his final respects was a given. Back in second grade, a teacher told his mother he needed to stop handing in assignments focused on Howe. He has even named a pet Gordie.

“I was a huge fan and played hockey my whole life – to me, he was the boss,” Robitaille said before entering the arena. “He put hockey on the map in the U.S. and put Detroit on the map as a Hockeytown.”

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The player’s prowess inspired diehard fans such as Shawn Wurtz, 19, who came from Chicago with his mother, Cindy, and sister, Brandy, to stop at Joe Louis Arena en route to a hockey tournament in Toronto.

Wurtz met Howe when he was too young to remember but relished learning all about his legendary career.

“You just kind of knew who he was from the moment that you heard his name. You could talk a lot about how great of a player he was, but the hockey community, the hockey community… I feel he was the embodiment of those traditions,” he said while standing outside the arena after dark. “So many things were based on him and the lure of Gordie Howe. Even guys who play men’s league at 11:00 on Friday nights — so many of them replicate things that he did in the locker room. That kind of lasting impact that he had on the game of hockey and the culture of hockey is what I think is the most incredible thing.”

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That also lured Robert Fortney of Livonia, who adjusted a Steve Yzerman jersey with red duct tape so that it reflected Howe’s classic No. 9.

Fortney cherished memories of Howe signing autographs for him as a Cub Scout, so attending the hockey great’s visitation “means a lot,” he said. “He’s Detroit's icon sports figure. What Babe Ruth was to baseball, Gordie Howe is to hockey. For him to always be representing Detroit in a positive manner will never be forgotten.”

Gennifer Holman, of New Haven, lays flowers in front of the Gordie Howe statue in Joe Louis Arena.

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After winding through the visitation, fans Jeannie Louks of Milford and Judi Sandeen snapped photos near a Howe statute at the Joe Louis concourse.

“He’s the greatest,” said Sandeen, who recalled attending a game at Olympia so long ago that there was no protective glass to protect a fan from being struck by a flying hockey puck.

Louks, who donned a red and white Wings jersey along with a golden pendant, was still reeling from losing a figure she’d watched for so long.

“It feels like part of us — family,” she said.

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Bud Somerville arrived at Joe Louis Arena around 11:30 p.m. Monday. He was first in line — and almost 10 hours early — for the public visitation, which began at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

“I wasn’t missing this,” the Westland resident said. “I was going to be first in line no matter what time I got here.

“When your all-time heroes start leaving us, it’s time to pay your respects.”

Somerville said he met Howe “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’s first meeting with Howe came at Olympia when he was 14.

“I was standing there right after the game and they were trying to get everyone out,” he said. “I just kind of stood behind a pillar.”

His patience — and sneakiness — paid off, and he shook his idol’s hand.

Ten years ago, their paths crossed again, this time at a book signing.

“I’ve got a picture like he was wrapping (his stick) around my neck, taking me out,” Somerville said. “That was one of the best times.”

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“(In the) late ’50s and early ’60s, I used to ride my bike to my girlfriend’s. One day when I was putting my brakes on, the pedal came off and he picked me up, dusted me off, fixed my bike and sent me on my way. It was pretty cool. I shook the whole ride from there. We still talk about it. He was just a neat man.”

Linda Fitzpatrick, 68, Detroit

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

And the goose bumps have barely subsided.

“I’ll never forget that experience,” said Stolman, a Farmington Hills native. “The celebration lasted for 15-20 minutes. 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 more than 300 of Howe’s games at Olympia.

“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.”

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“He was a funny guy and he loved to hang around the fans. He didn’t mind being interrupted. We’d walk down the beach, and people who would recognize him. He had no problem stopping and saying hello and posing for pictures. We had great conversations about hockey.”

Bob Resch, 60, Ypsilanti

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Distance didn’t matter to Charles McCann — he flew to Detroit from St. Joseph, Mo., north of Kansas City.

“I’ve been a hockey fan for a long time,” McCann said.

He remembers watching Howe play in 1980 in St. Louis when Howe was with the Hartford Whalers.

“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.

“Most players had helmets. He came out bare-headed, age 52.”

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“I had five hours, round trip, just to do this because he meant a lot to me and my family. My dad was a fan of his on the ice, and my mom was a fan of his off the ice. I had older sisters who used to do ice skating in a rink where they (the Red Wings) practiced. All the kids would be lined up for autographs afterward, and Mr. Howe, if they were pushing and shoving, would say, ‘I don’t get pushed around on the ice. I’m not going to get pushed around off it. Either you act like little gentlemen and ladies and I’ll stay here, or I won’t.’ And if kids pushed and fought, he would leave. But as long as everyone else acted appropriately, he would stay and sign autographs as long as the kids were there. He taught values and respect on the ice and off the ice. It’s who he was as a whole person and that’s why he’s so legendary.”

Jim Irvine, 50, Cleveland (born and raised in Detroit)

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

Still, she wasn’t going to miss this.

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

Nardi said she met Howe several times, and even has a piece of memorabilia signed.

“Pool tiles,” Nardi said. “One of my customers owned a pool company that did the tile at Gordie’s pool. He had him sign a bunch of them.”

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“I went to the mall and got him to sign a bobblehead, and he was incredibly nice. He said, ‘OK, now, this is for your dad?’ and I said it is. So he turned it around and said, ‘Here, why don’t you sign it, too.’ He made me feel like my autograph was just as important as his. That’s just how cool he was.”

A.J. Hoffman, 33, Midland

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Bill Addis, an Eastpointe resident, first met Howe when their sons played Pee Wee hockey in the same league.

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

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

Nearly two hours later, Addis and Schelosky emerged from the viewing area, and said they met and spoke briefly with Howe’s sons, Mark and Marty.

Addis said the brothers remembered those Pee Wee games.

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“We were at a Buick Open up in Flint and he was there at the Pro-Am .... (and) asked him for an autograph and he said his wife (Colleen) got a little jealous because he signs all the autographs. He said, ‘She’s over by that tree, would you go ask her for her (autograph)?’ We ran over and got it, and he was sitting over there smiling. He got us. It was pretty cool.”

Mark Everett, 62, and his wife Carol, 62, Kapaa, Hawaii

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For Tim Gass, attending the public visitation was a special occasion for him and his 2-year-old son, Brenden.

“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 Waterford resident said.

The Gass family has three generations of Red Wings fans — and heroes.

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.”

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“The Red Wings gave him a station wagon and it was covered in plastic, and his parents were in the car. He didn’t know that they had flown in from Saskatchewan. I made a comment that I lived at Six Mile and Telegraph in northwest Detroit, and that was on the way to Lathrup Village, where he lived. He says, ‘You want a ride?’ I couldn’t believe it. Gordie and I had 45 minutes and I asked him who his toughest goalie was and he said Glenn Hall.”

Mike Ross, 65, Rochester Hills

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Jock Rodgers was in Louisville, Ky., on Friday for Muhammad Ali’s funeral when news of Howe’s death broke.

“(Howe and Ali) were two of my greatest sports heroes — losing them back-to-back is hard,” the 65-year-old Winnipeg resident said.

Rodgers said he immediately switched his travel plans and flew to Detroit in time for the public visitation.

He was among the first in line, sporting a strip of masking tape on his forehead with a winged wheel, the No. 9 and the words, “Mr. Hockey R.I.P.” scribbled in red ink.

“I didn’t have a chance to bring any of my jerseys so I tried to paste it down here (on my shirt) but it wouldn’t stick,” he said. “So I figured it had to go on my head.”

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“I worked at a gas station (and) he came in. I was about 14 or 15 years old and he came in there to get some gas in a can and I’ll never forget it. I said, ‘You’re Gordie Howe,’ and he said, ‘Yes I am.’ He was just the nicest, most down-to-earth person that you’re ever going to meet.”

Mitch Selengowski, Sterling Heights

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Hamtramck residents Luigi Gjokaj, 38, and his daughters were too young to watch Howe play.

But that didn’t matter.

“I grew up hearing about him,” Gjokaj said alongside daughters Marlena, 12, and Kristina, 5. “You look at all the highlights, and the things he did for kids. As a father, you can’t beat that.”

Inside the arena, Gjokaj almost lost his breath.

“Wow,” he said, softly. “That’s beautiful.”

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“I went in to do some shopping and he was coming out and I walked up to him and greeted him and told him how I loved what he did. I knew I could talk to him because he was such a nice man. He was an enormous talent, but he was such a nice man to talk to. We talked for maybe 10 minutes. I actually went with my son to Gordie Howe’s (restaurant) and we sat there and watched the Wings win the Stanley Cup that year.”

Grace Fenton, 65, Detroit