DETROIT (AP) — Gordie Howe could break a lobster claw with his fingers, one of his sons said, and make people melt in his hands with his kindness and humility.
With a nod to the two dominant personas of Mr. Hockey, his family was joined by hundreds of friends and acquaintances Wednesday for a funeral service to bid farewell to one of the NHL’s greatest players.
Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Scotty Bowman, Gary Bettman and dozens of current and past players, coaches and executives were in attendance at the public service, including fans decked out in Detroit Red Wings gear.
“The people paying their respects, including who’s who of hockey, shows the impact that he had,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said after the two-hour service. “But I also thought it was a great family funeral and a great tribute to him.”
When thousands of people lined up and waited to pay their respects during a visitation at Joe Louis Arena the previous day, Gretzky, Bowman and Al Kaline were among the pallbearers. About six miles away the next day, Howe’s brown casket adorned with red and white roses was guided in and out of at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament by nine family members.
Just the way Howe would have liked it.
Murray Howe, one of his four children, began the service with a tear- and laugh-provoking eulogy that emphasized his father’s toughness and generosity.
“How do I do justice to the life of a living legend — my own hero? I still pinch myself at the realization that he was my father,” he said to a rapt crowd before delivering a speech that Gretzky called “incredible.”
Dozens of fans stood in line a couple hours before the funeral, which was streamed online by the Red Wings from the cathedral that has a capacity of about 900. Ted Lindsay — part of Detroit’s famed “Production Line” with Howe and Sid Abel — was among those on hand.
The rugged Hall of Famer died Friday at the age of 88. Murray Howe recalled talking with his father about what he should say after Gordie died.
“He said, ‘Say this: Finally, the end of the third period.’ Then he added, ‘I hope there’s a good hockey team in heaven,’” Murray Howe said. “Dad, all I can say is, once you join the team, they won’t just be good, they’ll be great.”
Howe set NHL records with 801 goals and 1,850 points — mostly with the Red Wings — that stood until Gretzky came along. Howe also won four Stanley Cups with Detroit and those banners flanked his casket during the visitation on Tuesday on the floor of the arena.
Gretzky wore No. 99 as a player in a tribute to Howe, a man he got to know when he was a kid. The Great One said he was “embarrassed” to break Howe’s records because he played in an incomparable era.
“He had 19 enemies in the arena every night, but those were the only ones he ever had,” Gretzky said after the funeral.
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock met Howe in Edmonton, Alberta, about six decades ago when he was a kid. Like a lot of people in western Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, Hitchcock grew up rooting for the Red Wings because of Howe. Hitchcock became one of Howe’s many friends in the early 1990s when he was an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Flyers and Howe’s son, Mark, was playing for them toward the end of his Hall of Fame career.
“Gordie would spend all day and night at the rink because he just loved the game and the people in it,” Hitchcock said Wednesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “And if you got an autograph from him back then or at any time in his life, he would look you in the eye and you could read every letter of his name because that’s what kind of great guy he was.”
Murray Howe has said his father’s remains will be cremated. The family requested donations be made to the Gordie Howe Traumatic Brain Injury Initiative, the Howe Foundation or the Gordie Howe Fund for Alzheimer’s Research.