Wayne Gretzky talks about Gordie Howe during Tuesday's visitation at Joe Louis Arena.
Detroit — For Gordie Howe they gathered in a long line from an entrance on Yzerman Drive, hooking around Joe Louis Arena and down Atwater along the Detroit River.
They waited to memorialize, paying tribute to the great man, providing grand civic witness to a splendid life and recalling the magnificence of a player many of them consider the greatest in hockey.
From Brighton and Escanaba, Dallas and Chicago, St. Catharines, Ontario and Sainte Adele, Quebec, they assembled in this city to honor him.
Massive, public veneration of great athletes is infrequent in American life.
They did it for Muhammad Ali in Louisville just last week. They did it in 1948 for Babe Ruth in The Bronx, lining up outside Yankee Stadium on August 18.
In Montreal, they have done it for Jean Beliveau and Howe’s great rival Maurice Richard, the Rocket.
For Howe, they are doing it across two days in Detroit.
“It’s very special, a very special day,” said Al Kaline, whose great baseball career was the summer bookend to Howe’s winters in the booming city of the 1950s and 1960s.
“It’s very fitting for someone as great as Gordie to have something where people can give their respects to Gordie and to the family.”
The day struck many present as unforgettable.
It was hard work, the staging of the visitation area assembled hurriedly by workers in long hours over the past few days, complete with the four Stanley Cup banners of the Howe years lowered and arrayed on the wall above and behind his casket.
Displayed in the middle was a fifth banner from the rafters, the one bearing the big white number nine on a vivid red background, commemorating its retirement.
The visitation also was classy, as this city can often be, with Steve Yzerman, Scotty Bowman, Wayne Gretzky, Kaline and others bearing witness.
But also, in the Detroit way and the Howe way, it mostly was fanfare for the common people.
“I came to pay my respects for Gordie Howe,” said Sherry Caudill, of Farmington, who woke up at 6:30 a.m. to get downtown and was in line at 8:15, 45 minutes before the doors opened.
“I met him several times.”
The Happy Birthday that Howe wished her personally one day is something she cannot forget and Caudill had the card with her that he autographed all those years ago.
“Just the way he interacted with his fans,” she said. “He was really great to his fans.”
Her friend Charlene Skonieczny, also of Farmington, made the pilgrimage, too.
“I’m here to pay my respect to Gordie Howe,” Skonieczny said. “He was a great man.
“I actually met him when he was in Gibraltar signing autographs, and I also met him here at Joe Louis for books signing.
“I met his wife Colleen at one of them, too.
“I find the whole family, they all appreciate everybody,” she said. “They take the time to talk to you and they’re very friendly and I really appreciate them.”
The visitation also was shimmering and luminous, like the enormous distinction Howe brought to both hockey and the city playing for the Red Wings from 1946 to 1971.
“Somebody said it best this morning,” said Wayne Gretzky, who idolized Howe from childhood. “Beliveau, Rocket, Gordie; they were the three people that could change a hockey rink into a cathedral.
“And when we walked in, we were like at a church today.
“Hockey is not going to be the same, the world is not going to be the same without Gordie,” Gretzky said.
Richard’s funeral May 31, 2000, brought Montreal to a halt.
Befitting his status as a player and a figure of enormous political significance in French Canada, about 2,700 gathered in the Notre-Dame Basilica, and 1,500 watched outside, on a giant screen.
When Howe exited his automobile in front of the church, the throng rose in an enormous ovation.
They did it again when he returned to it afterward.
Howe did not speak at his great rival’s funeral. But in an interview in the parking garage of the Bell Centre that morning, he told the Canadian hockey writer Dave Stubbs that he had no interest in settling the argument of who was greater.
“Let’s just keep it going,” Howe said.
“The Rocket was a tremendous hockey player. I can’t say it enough: The man made the league what it is today, so the rest of us could make a living at it.”
The quintessential Gordie Howe: Someone else is pretty darned good, too, and they deserve a lot of credit.
In Detroit this week, just like in Montreal 16 years ago, a great hockey player brought thousands together, the affluent and the working class, the powerful and the plain, the prominent and the unknown, the athlete and the fan. All felt the same need to memorialize the great man.
“This is obviously a very sad occasion,” Yzerman said. “But it’s for us to be able to honor Gordie. And the whole city and hockey fans of all ages, everyone knows who Gordie Howe is.”
Many recalled when they met him.
“It was like, oh my gosh!” Gretzky said. “He was bigger and better and nicer than I imagined him to be, you know?
“He had a way about him, whether he was talking to my father, or the prime minister, or one of the waitresses around him at dinner, he had a way of being able to talk to everyone and everybody and putting them at ease.
“He was just genuinely that nice.”
And so it is that the civic appreciation of him will continue, at his funeral mass today.