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Gordie Howe farewell draws thousands to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit

Fans have started flocking to Detroit's Joe Louis Arena to say their final farewells to Gordie Howe, the hockey legend who died last week at age 88.

'Gordie Howe to me represented hockey in Detroit'

Visitation for the Canadian hockey legend at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit 0:00

Thousands of people filed quietly onto the floor of a darkened Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday to pay respects to Gordie Howe, the hockey Hall of Famer known as "Mr. Hockey."

The home of the Detroit Red Wings, Howe's team for more than two decades and four Stanley Cup championships, was opened for 12 hours — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for No. 9 — and the public turned out in force for one of the most revered athletes in NHL history.

Wayne Gretzky, Scotty Bowman and Al Kaline were among the pallbearers who guided Howe's casket down a long strip of red carpet that ran through the middle of the arena floor — with a "9" illuminated on both sides — and toward the opposite end of the iceless rink.

"It was one of the great honours of my life," Gretzky said. "He was everything to me."

'I was enamoured by him'

Hockey superstars Wayne Gretzky, right, and Gordie Howe hold up T-shirt featuring them as "Legends on Ice" during a news conference at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Oct. 11, 1989. (Bob Galbraith/Associated Press)

Gretzky wore No. 99 in a tribute to Howe, whom he got to know long before he became known as The Great One.

"I was like seven or eight years old and I used to go to a barber shop, in those days you went to a barber shop, and I said, `I want a Gordie Howe haircut,"' Gretzky recalled. "I was enamoured by him at a young age."

Howe's retired No. 9 jersey was lowered to just above his casket adorned with dozens of red roses. Pairs of the four Stanley Cup banners he helped the Red Wings win from 1950 to 1955 were lowered off to each side, honouring the Canadian star who died Friday in Ohio at the age of 88.

A fan leaves a tribute to Gordie Howe, the man known as Mr. Hockey, outside Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Video monitors below the championship banners showed a streaming gallery of pictures, including some from the early part of his career in the 1940s, toward the end of it when he played professional hockey with his sons and after he hung up his skates and was hanging out with Steve Yzerman.

As people silently shuffled their feet during a 30-minute wait to meet and greet two of his sons, Mark and Murray, only the hum of the heating-and-cooling system could be heard in the opening hour of the visitation. Later in the day, the line and wait grew longer.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to attend Howe's funeral, which is also expected to be open to the public, on Wednesday morning in Detroit.

Howe shattered records, threw elbows and fists and became an idol to Gretzky and many others while elevating the profile the NHL had in the U.S. With strength, speed and grit, he set NHL records with 801 goals and 1,850 points — mostly with the Red Wings — that stood until Gretzky came along.

'He had so much power'

A fan walks away after paying his respect to Gordie Howe at Joe Louis Arena. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Howe had bulging muscles — unlike many players in his day — on his 6-foot, 205-pound frame and had a great shot both with his fist and stick.

"He had so much power," said Bowman, who won an NHL-record ninth Stanley Cup as a coach with the Red Wings in 2002. "He was perfect. If you were going to make a mould of a player, you would want to make it of Gordie."

As tough as Howe was on the ice, even his fiercest rivals acknowledged his gentle demeanour away from the rink. Kaline, a baseball Hall of Famer, got to see that side of Howe in the 1950s when he played for the Detroit Tigers and marvelled at how he always made time for people he met. Howe and Kaline later became close friends.

Four days after Howe's death, a string of red-and-white clad fans got a chance to walk near Howe's casket and to shake hands with some of his four children.

"It's very fitting," Kaline said.

More than a hockey player

A thank-you note is written on a puck. (Aadel Haleem/CBC)

A few bouquets of flowers, a Jesus candle and a thank-you note written on a hockey puck sit on the steps outside the Gordie Howe entrance of Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. They were placed there by fans ahead of Tuesday's public visitation to pay tribute to the late Mr. Hockey. 

Michael and Marsha Sutfin have to work Tuesday, so the Canton, Mich., residents paid their respects Monday evening.

"Gordie Howe to me represented hockey in Detroit," Michael Sutfin said. "He was, of course, Mr. Hockey, but he also was more than that. He was a great fan favourite, he was good to the community. He was just what hockey is in Detroit — you think of Gordie Howe."

His wife said her brother was named after the hockey icon.

"My dad was a big hockey fan and [my parents] named my brother after Gordie. My dad said, 'We were trying to come up with a name and I like Gordie Howe,' so he was Gordie," Marsha Suftin said.

He never turned away a fan

Tom Walencewicz remembers meeting Howe at a Detroit Lions game in 1997. 

"I think my fondest memory of Gordie Howe was just how gracious he was," he said. "How he never turned away a fan. Always signed an autograph and always had a joke or a quip for people and I just thought that he was just a tremendous representative of Detroit."

Fred Rutherford drove from London, Ont., for the visitation.

"Gordie Howe was my hero. When I was nine years old, I went down to Cleary Auditorium [in Windsor]. Gordie picked me out of the line because I had No. 9 on and I got to sit on his lap," Rutherford said while wearing a Howe sweater and waiting for a tunnel bus early Tuesday morning. "He's more than a hockey player. He's a humanitarian. I go to celebrate that and his hockey skill."

With files from CBC's Aadel Haleem

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