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Gordie Howe stirs memories one year after death

To family, hockey community, public, Mr. Hockey 'will always be with us'

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

A year after the death of Gordie Howe, Marty Howe still slips into the present tense when discussing his legendary father, without even knowing it.

"When Gordie meets people, it's something special," Marty Howe, 63, said this week. "It doesn't matter if you're a boy or a girl or an adult, if you're sick or healthy. Gordie just treats everybody the same."

The hockey world was shaken to its core a year ago Saturday, when Gordie Howe died June 10, 2016, at age 88 following a lengthy illness. His death came two days before the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup, the decisive Game 6 in San Jose against the Sharks on June 12 played beneath a somber cloud.

The death of Howe, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who played professionally in an unprecedented five decades, was mourned by his sport and by countless people who weren't fans but had Gordie Howe stories to tell, their brush with Mr. Hockey a memory to be cherished forever.

A dramatic public visitation was held June 14 at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, a scheduled nine-hour event stretching to 12 hours and 40 minutes, an endless queue of fans streaming in to pay their respects and offer condolences to Marty, Mark, Murray and Cathy, the children of Gordie and his late wife, Colleen.

The emotional, uplifting funeral service was held the following day at Detroit's Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, attended by many of his dear friends, former teammates and opponents, dignitaries, and fans of all ages, many wearing Mr. Hockey's iconic Detroit Red Wings No. 9 on their backs.

The messages still come to Marty Howe a year later, by email, calls and from people in the street, everyone with a story to share, Gordie Howe's folksy goodness the common thread.

"Gordie and my mom would usually stop at hospitals on trips, I get a lot of those messages," said Marty, a former NHL defenseman. "The visits changed people's lives. He'd just go into a hospital ward and pop into somebody's room and start chatting away."

Then, with a laugh, he said: "I think the rest of us would be arrested for doing something like that. But it was just a gift Gordie had. He had everybody smiling and laughing for five minutes and then he'd go to the next room."

Memories of Gordie Howe also remain vivid for those he touched across the NHL.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recalled the 2017 NHL All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles in January, when legends Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux were speaking at a news conference.

"Wayne and Bobby and Mario all agreed that Gordie was the greatest ever," the Commissioner said during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh on Thursday. "I think that Gordie is present today and will always be present in the game. He will always be with us."

Commissioner Bettman has special memories of his time spent with Mr. Hockey.

"When we were both younger, every time I'd see Gordie, instead of a handshake, I'd get a headlock," he said with a laugh.

Howe's fast-elbowed body of work on the rink is well-known; he set records that were untouchable until the arrival of Gretzky, who was first a fan, then a close friend, of Howe.

"Two things separated Gordie from everyday players," Gretzky said at Joe Louis Arena during Howe's visitation last June. "One, Gordie never thought he was bigger or better than anybody else. He always wanted to prove that he was. He never said to anybody, 'I'm the best player, I'm the No. 1 guy.'

"And he always had a need to perform each and every game and practice. That's what separated Gordie Howe from the rest and that's why he was Gordie Howe. He had a definite ambition that he was going to be the best player every night and every year. That's how he lived. He never changed."

Orr met Howe when the future Boston Bruins defenseman was 11 or 12, Mr. Hockey arriving in Orr's hometown of Parry Sound, Ontario, for a fishing trip.

"I sit and look at Gordie's stats and I laugh," Orr said at a reception following Howe's funeral. "I actually giggle when I look at his stats. Twenty-two consecutive (NHL) seasons of 20 or more goals? That's outrageous. His numbers are unbelievable, and he played in an era that was pretty tough. …

"I obviously liked Gordie's hockey, but the man, well, he was one of the great individuals I ever met. When he was with my father he was so kind. I loved watching him tweak a kid's nose. I'd meet him at All-Star Games and I had him at Parry Sound for a benefit game years ago. He was just a gentleman. I never heard Gordie raise his voice."

Nashville Predators general manager David Poile shared stories about Howe -- one involving his late father, Bud, and one of his own.

"My dad was the coach in the Detroit system for the Western Hockey League's Edmonton Flyers for (nine) years," Poile said this week. "They'd play like six games in six nights in western Canada, which is unheard of. Gordie was always absolutely my dad's favorite player. What I didn't know was Gordie's nickname. My dad always called him 'Power.' 

"My own memory: I went to college in Boston and the first NHL game I ever saw was in 1966, the first game of the season. It was Detroit at Boston, which featured the first NHL game Bobby Orr ever played, against Detroit with Gordie Howe."

Howe and Orr each had an assist in Boston's 6-2 victory.

Even as figures around the hockey world shared similar remembrances of Mr. Hockey following his death, it took a few months for Marty Howe to finally have time to consider his own loss.

"You're upset, you cry when it happens, and that's mostly just because you're going to miss him," he said. "But you look back and you think about all the things you've done together and for me there was nothing negative that ever happened.

"We'd go into a restaurant or out to the car and he'd always open the door for my wife. Whenever a lady was around, he'd see that she would sit first. Even the last couple weeks of his life and I'd go to see him, he'd shove his food over to me first to see if I wanted it. He was always offering. I'd say, 'No, Dad, you need to eat.' Eventually, after he'd offered it to everybody, he'd eat.

Video: Gordie Howe, 'Mr. Hockey,' enjoyed five-decade career

"He is just a kind, gentle person off the ice. He just treats everybody like he's known you forever and after five minutes, you think you have known him forever. That's his gift. He's never stopped doing that his entire life."

The Howe family is having discussions about sharing its remarkable history in the United States and Canada, including the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and Little Caesars Arena, where the Red Wings will play beginning next season.

A few years ago, as his father's health began to decline, Marty Howe built an 8-foot No. 9 and draped it with countless Christmas lights, displaying it on the side of his home, facing the road.

"You can't miss it," he said with a chuckle. "I'm pretty sure you could see it from an aircraft."

Gordie Howe took great joy in decorating the family home every Christmas, and Marty followed suit. The huge No. 9 seemed a perfect salute to his father, who with another icon, Montreal Canadiens forward Maurice Richard, wore it with NHL-defining distinction.

Marty has no idea how many lights are on it; he joked that he "bought extras just in case a string goes out. I'd fire it up at Christmas or on Gordie's birthday.

"It could be an occasion, or just when I'm thinking of him. Now, it has a different meaning."

On Saturday, once more and still thinking of Mr. Hockey, Marty Howe will again fire up No. 9.

"I just kind of try to celebrate Gordie's life," he said, "and everything he did."

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