Hockey Night in Canada

Gordie Howe visitation draws thousands

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

Gretzky, Bowman, Kaline act as pallbearers

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, his team for much of his NHL Hall of Fame career, Tuesday, June 14, 2016 in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

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."

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.

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.

"The biggest thing I take away is his humility," said Yzerman, the Tampa Bay executive who spent his entire Hall of Fame career in Detroit. "And the way he took time for people and treated everyone with respect."

As people silently shuffled their feet during a 34-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 grew longer and wrapped around the arena along Civic Center Drive on the banks of the Detroit River.

No wait would've been too long for 66-year-old Paul Snapp, one of more than 100 people waiting outside to get in, where another, longer line snaked through the storied arena.

Snapp was sporting Howe's No. 9 Detroit Vipers jersey from his one-game stint as a 69-year-old forward during the 1997-98 International Hockey League season, his sixth decade of professional hockey, and he proudly recalled how he used to deliver Howe's mail in suburban Detroit.

"My dad took me to see him play in 1958 at the old Olympia Stadium," Snapp said. "Gordie Howe has been my hero ever since that day. I wouldn't have missed this opportunity to see him one more time for anything in the world."

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.

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      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.

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

      "I was like 7 or 8 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 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 mold 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 marveled 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.

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