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Howe gets one last walk through 'The Joe'

Arena transformed into house of worship during public visitation for 'Mr. Hockey'

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

DETROIT -- It was just before 9 a.m. ET when family and the legends took their places at Gordie Howe's polished casket, dozens of roses atop it.

Mr. Hockey's three sons: Mark, Marty and Murray.

Dear family friend Felix Gatt, who had escorted Gordie to so many of his public appearances, and now was doing so again with a broken heart.

That doesn't tell the half of the pain Gatt was feeling; surely he was numb, having lost his dear friend Friday and his own wife a couple of days ago.

There was Detroit Tigers icon Al Kaline, and Detroit Red Wings executive vice-president and general manager Ken Holland.

On opposite sides of the coffin, which rolled slowly through the long, curved corridor that rings the rink, were Wayne Gretzky and Scotty Bowman, the greatest of the great all-time among players and coaches.

In a small group behind, among the extended Howe family, was Gretzky's father Walter, who was greeted by name by police officers, kitchen staff and Red Wings employees. Walter waved happily at everyone.

The only noise you heard on this procession was the shuffling of feet and the throbbing hum of the building's ventilation system.

The group walked past the names of Red Wings champions and award winners stenciled on the walls in red paint, past giant likenesses of Stanley Cup trophies among the names on the walls.

Gordie Howe had walked this corridor many times in retirement, and every time he did he took the breath away of at least a few. To others he was almost Uncle Gordie, the most comfortable sweater in the dresser.

You wanted to see Gordie in this building. You needed to.

It was when they finally reached the corridor outside the Olympia Room, Gordie's photos in there among dozens of Red Wings through the decades, that the group took a left turn and began the walk up the red carpet to the deep slot at the far end of the rink.

Gordie's No. 9 was projected on the cement floor on either side, his name glowing softly on the ribbon board that circles the bowl of arena seats.

The Montreal Canadiens have set the bar for an occasion that awaited the endless flow of fans who soon would be here to pay their respects.

In May 2000, Canadiens superstar Maurice Richard lay in state at Bell Centre for the more than 100,000 mourners who came to pay respects to the incandescent Rocket. The arena was transformed from a hockey and concert venue to a cathedral, only fitting since the Canadiens are viewed as a religion in the province of Quebec.

In December 2014, Jean Beliveau was honored in almost the same way for thousands of mourners during two days, in a spectacular setting that befit his status with the Canadiens and hockey as a whole.

If the Rocket had been the furnace of the Canadiens in the 1940s and 1950s, Beliveau would grow to become their conscience during his 1960s captaincy and his move into the management suite, his name engraved on the Stanley Cup a record 17 times -- 10 as a player, seven as an executive.

Video: Hockey world pays tribute to Gordie Howe

What the Red Wings did Tuesday to pay tribute to Gordie Howe was every inch the equal of the splendid, tasteful way the Canadiens honored Richard and Beliveau.

Gordie's coffin was placed beneath a huge HOWE 9 banner, bookended by banners celebrating the four championships won while he played for Detroit.

It was framed by arrangements of flowers, among them a display of roses from Red Wings owners Mike and Marian Ilitch and their son Christopher, who manages the family businesses.

There was a marvelous gallery of a dozen photos of Howe through the years; nameplated Houston Aeros jerseys of Gordie, Mark and Marty, when they were teammates in the mid-1970s on that World Hockey Association team; video screens with one historic photo after another displayed in rotation.

Here was a weathered pair of leather D&R hockey gloves Howe had signed; an old wood stick that probably clubbed an opponent or two and had a dozen or so goals in it; two gorgeous home and road Red Wings sweaters -- and don't you dare call these "jerseys."

Video: Helene St. James reminisces on Gordie Howe

Many of the items were from Gatt's collection, loaned to showcase the remarkable span of Howe's life and career.

The pallbearers and family members met the people who came seemingly forever, shaking hands, offering consolation to those who had come to do the consoling yet were overcome by grief when they reached the front of the line.

A half-hour before family and their most special guests met near a hearse that pulled into Joe Louis Arena, Marty Howe considered the day ahead, and the Wednesday funeral that likely would be a crowbar in the chest of the Howe family.

And then he smiled.

His mischievous father, he said, sometimes would go into someone's house and autograph something, just for the fun of it.

The Howes, Mark would say in the receiving line, knew the adrenaline would stop flowing later this week, when the tributes were done and a funeral had been held. He expected that might be the hardest thing.

For now, Mark and his family and many special guests were buoyed by the love, so much love, washing over a father, grandfather, teammate, opponent, friend and legend.

Three sons and their fellow pallbearers never will forget that they took the great Gordie Howe on his final walk through a building that, on this day, was not a hockey arena but rather a house of worship.

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