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Detroit prepares to pay respects to Howe

Red Wings family, friends will attend service at Joe Louis Arena today

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

DETROIT -- It's not by accident that the doors of Joe Louis Arena opened at 9 a.m. today and will close at 9 p.m.

Detroit Red Wings icon Gordie Howe's No. 9 sweater is as synonymous with the late legend as his flowing signature, his folksy drawl or his ability to control a game either with silky hands or a sharpened elbow.

For 12 hours former teammates, opponents, captains of industry, politicians, old friends, longtime fans and curious common folk will stream into the Red Wings home. A simple, stirring setting was assembled for them to pay their respects to Howe, who died Friday at age 88.

All began arriving at one end of the arena, the ice gone from the cement floor, and walk a red carpet until they reach Mr. Hockey's closed casket at the far blue line. They then will go up through the stands to the concourse level, where they were able to visit the statues of Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio, and perhaps record a personal memory or vignette that will be archived by the Red Wings, who are streaming all 12 hours of the visitation on their website.

Look around this city and you will see many bittersweet tributes and signs of farewell, including a No. 9 that appeared Friday atop the building of General Motors' world headquarters.

Video: Public Visitation for Gordie Howe

"Thank You Mr. Hockey" rotates among the messages on a huge video board outside the Cobo Convention Center, which neighbors Joe Louis Arena. The historic Fox Theater has a similar message on its marquee.

The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News each has published special sections and many stories relating remembrances of Howe, tributes coming from all over.

On Wednesday at 11 a.m., Howe's life will be celebrated at a funeral to be held at Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, with the service open to the public.

And how fitting that Red Wings fans and others who simply were touched by Howe's enormous talent and giant heart will be welcomed at the ceremony.

"Gordie touched a lot of lives by playing 26-some years in the NHL with the Red Wings," Ken Kal, their veteran radio voice, said Monday.

Kal spoke on a sofa in the ice-level office of Bill Roose, managing editor of the Red Wings website and a team historian. Roose, like many, is struggling with this huge loss. But this has hit him harder than most, given his contact and deep friendship during the decades with Howe and his fellow Red Wings legends.

Roose spoke Monday, shaking his head, of Howe and fellow Detroit icon Ted Lindsay sitting in his office, spinning incredible yarns of their Original Six days while he sat back silently, absorbing every word.

"Gordie ran into a lot of people throughout his career," Kal said, "whether at a restaurant, a gas station, just out in public or at a small hockey arena. He always had time for the people.

"Not only did he sign autographs, he talked to people, as well. Over 26 seasons here, and over the last several that he'd been around The Joe with his son Mark [Detroit's director of pro scouting], he's talked with a lot of people and been gracious with a lot of people.

"Already, Gordie's missed. I think the people here understand that he was probably Detroit's greatest athlete who's ever played, in all sports. And now he's gone."

Kal remembers attending his first NHL game like it was yesterday: Jan. 25, 1969, a matinee between the Red Wings and Oakland Seals, won 5-3 by Detroit.

"Gordie scored a goal and Terry Sawchuk was goaltender for Detroit," he said. "Terry played one more game and was traded to New York, but I had an opportunity to see two all-tine greats. And Gordie was my all-time favorite player.

"Growing up as a kid here in Detroit, everybody wanted to be Gordie Howe. If you were skating in your backyard on the frozen pond you made, you were always No. 9. You were always Gordie Howe. And you always wanted to score."

Video: Players react to Gordie Howe passing

Kal expects there will be many tears shed when fans shuffle up the arena floor to pay their final respects. On Monday morning the building was taking a form very much resembling Montreal's Bell Centre, where similar visitations were held in an almost cathedral setting for Montreal Canadiens legends Maurice "Rocket" Richard in 2000 and Jean Beliveau in 2014.

"There are not going to be too many dry eyes," Kal said. "I think there will be a lot of emotion. But I also think people will be here to celebrate Gordie's life. It's a sad day when a legend like Gordie passes away. But on the other hand you celebrate his accomplishments on the ice and what he was like as a human being off the ice.

"He was a great family man. He loved his wife Colleen, raised his kids the right way, and had terrific grandkids. I've never heard one bad word said about Gordie Howe."

For all the melancholy talk, Kal had a few funny stories about Howe, as does anyone who met the man.

"There was a brawl that took place right in front of the Red Wings bench, and whoever this guy was, I can't remember who, went to punch the Red Wing guy, who moved, and he hit Gordie on the bench," Kal said, grinning. "The rest of the fight the guy was holding the Red Wings guy off, fighting, trying to tussle, and he's apologizing to Gordie on the bench."

Kal recalled Minnesota Wild radio analyst Tom Reid, a former Howe opponent, once expressing concern to him about Mr. Hockey's eyesight.

"Reid told me, 'I always thought when I played against Gordie he had problems seeing,'" Kal said. "He said, 'Gordie kept hitting me over the head with his stick. I think he always thought the puck was on top of my head.'"

There will be many similar stories shared the next two days, at the visitation and funeral, when the world of hockey gathers to say farewell to Howe.

"It's going to be great that fans will have the opportunity to pay their respects to Gordie," Kal said. "He's a guy who people in Detroit loved. Dearly."

And much, much farther afield than that.

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