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Thousands fill Joe Louis Arena to say goodbye to Howe

Fans, friends, hockey dignitaries flock to Detroit for public visitation for 'Mr. Hockey'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- The first person arrived at Joe Louis Arena on Monday at 11:30 p.m. ET, more than nine hours before the doors opened to the Gordie Howe visitation.

Bud Somerville, 60, a retired factory worker from Westland, Mich., sat in a folding chair by the door, wrapped himself in a blanket and watched cars motor past on Steve Yzerman Drive and boats drift by on the Detroit River. He couldn't sleep.

"Because I wasn't missing it," he said. "I was not missing it at all."

Howe died Friday at age 88, and mourners came to pay their respects to a man who meant so much to his sport and this city, from hockey luminaries like Wayne Gretzky and Scotty Bowman to fans who had seen him play, met him, knew him or just knew his legend.

The visitation was scheduled to go from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, but Howe's son Mark said the family planned to stay as long as it took to greet every last person. Gordie Howe was a man of the people. He was to be celebrated as he lived.

"If you had a chance to run into Gordie and even Mark, they always have time for everyone," said longtime Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, now the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "I know Gordie really appreciated being a Red Wing and loved to be here and around everyone. So I'm not the least bit surprised by that."

Howe will be remembered across the hockey world as one of the greatest players of all time, but not here in Detroit. Here he will be remembered as the greatest, period. It was here he played 25 seasons for the Red Wings, winning the Art Ross Trophy six times, the Hart Trophy six times, the Stanley Cup four times. It was here that he became "Mr. Hockey," making a personal connection with the fans and growing the game.

Though the Red Wings won the Cup in 1936, 1937 and 1943, the glory days came when they won it in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955. The Detroit Lions won the NFL championship in 1952, 1953 and 1957. Detroit was booming as the "Motor City," and it had stars like Ted Lindsay and Bobby Layne, and above all, Howe.

"Gordie was the greatest hockey player of all time, and people had pride in Detroit saying, 'Yeah, Gordie Howe, the Red Wings, they're great,'" said Al Kaline, who began his Hall of Fame baseball career with the Detroit Tigers in 1953 and became close friends with Howe. "Not very many people and not very many towns can say they had the greatest in their city, and Gordie Howe was the greatest."

When Somerville stood outside the arena before the doors opened, he remembered taking the bus from Wayne, Mich., to Olympia Stadium in Detroit when he was 13 or 14. He bought a ticket and went to a game by himself to see Howe. Afterward, the ushers cleared out the crowd but he hid behind a pillar. When he saw Howe he struck up a conversation. They shook hands.

Somerville said he went to hundreds of Red Wings games and met Howe many times. Sometimes he went to autograph signings. Other times he just ran into him. He would shake his hand like the first time every time.

"Greatest hockey player to ever live; nicest man I've ever met," Somerville said. "He's always been my favorite player. Just nobody compared to him. They called Gretzky the greatest, but 'Mr. Hockey' is the greatest. Even Gretzky said that the other day, that [Howe] was the greatest hockey player who ever lived."

Somerville wore his heart under his sleeve. He rolled up his shirt to reveal the Red Wings logo tattooed on his right shoulder, with the retired numbers along the top. The first number was No. 9.

All Somerville wanted to do was say thank you.

"That's why I'm here, just to thank him and pay respects to the Howe family and thank them for allowing us to be part of this," Somerville said.

Somerville wrote a message on one of two posters on the cinderblock wall outside the building, then walked through the door, into the arena and through the entrance to where the ice normally would be. So many people followed, old and young, dressed in suits and hockey sweaters and Red Wings apparel, and yet it was silent, the only sound the humming of the air conditioning.

Joe Louis Arena had become a cathedral. A red carpet led to Howe's closed casket, which seemed to sit upon an altar. Above him was his No. 9, lowered from the rafters and illuminated by a spotlight, flanked by the four Stanley Cup banners he helped win. His family sat to the right. Memorabilia from his career sat to the left, his Red Wings jerseys, his leather gloves, programs and photos and more.

Gretzky, Bowman, Kaline and Yzerman stood nearby. So did Howe's sons: Mark, Marty and Murray. Mark and Murray greeted mourners personally.

Second in line was Beverly Alfes, 60, of Harrison Township, Mich., who grew up watching Howe on "Hockey Night in Canada." She had taken her son to see Howe's last professional shift, with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League in 1997 when Howe was 69, and she had arrived at 6:45 a.m. with a favorite image living in her memory.

"His twinkle in his eye," she said. "Whenever somebody tried something on the ice you saw that and you knew that person was long gone."

Down the line was Marti Miller, 79, of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., wearing a hockey jersey Howe had autographed and clutching Howe's autobiography, "And … Howe!" She had shaken hands with Howe once at the Olympia, and she had met Howe and his wife, Colleen, at a book signing. Tucked inside her book was a photograph of the moment and an autograph on the title page. Howe had signed it to "a great lady" with "kindest wishes."

"Well," she said, almost blushing, "he didn't know I was a great lady."

But that was Gordie, and that was why the line continued to stretch, hundreds, thousands, to 10 a.m., to 11 a.m. …

It is one thing to play in the NHL. It is another to be a great player in the NHL. It is another to be one of the greatest or maybe even the greatest.

It is yet another to be a great player and a great person, and to share yourself with everyone.

"To be that humble and polite and respectful to people," Yzerman said, "is good for us all to learn from."

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