DETROIT – Ryan Schaff was just three years old when his dad took him to meet Gordie Howe at a book signing in Flint, Michigan.
The memory of that encounter had such long-lasting implications that the boy – now 29 and living in Arizona – was one of the first people in line to pay their final respects to the Red Wings’ legend Tuesday inside Joe Louis Arena.
“I read every book of his, I studied about him and then he became my role model, my inspiration,” said Schaff, trembling to get the words out. “Before hockey games that I played I didn’t pray to God, I prayed to Gordie Howe.”
That’s the kind of incredible following Howe possessed, and still does, in Detroit and throughout the hockey world.
Perhaps the greatest player in Motown sports history, Howe, who helped a dominant Red Wings’ club of the 1950s win four Stanley Cup championships, died last Friday. He was 88 years old.
A funeral mass will occur Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit.
Howe’s family – sons Mark, Marty, Murray and daughter Cathy – met with a multitude of well-wishers who stood in line for hours to pass by Mr. Hockey’s casket, which was positioned at the east end of the arena floor.
“Thank you,” Schaff said. “Thank you for allowing the public to be here. Thank you for letting me say my goodbye, and thank you for really, everything you guys have done for Detroit and for the game of hockey, and for someone like me who was able to look up to their father and their grandfather.”
The downtown arena was transformed into a hockey shrine where tens of thousands of fans and admirers waited to pay their respects to the Red Wings’ all-time goal scorer.
An eclectic gathering of fans made their way through the arena, from the well dressed to some in shorts and flip flops, but they all came with their favorite memories of Gordie Howe, whether it was of watching him on the ice or of meeting the fun-loving, charismatic jokester, who was always so gracious with his time away from the rink.
Howe was really a man of the people, and nearly everyone who stood in line Tuesday to view the closed casket and meet with family members had some sort of personal story to share.
Frank Gioia only met Mr. Hockey once, briefly, in the JLA concourse. But the LaSalle, Ontario man said it was a thrill to meet the hockey icon.
“He puts you at ease almost immediately and I think that’s what people liked about him,” said Gioia, as he stood in line. “He wasn’t a superstar when you were around him. That’s a very uncommon thing. It’s a rarity, unfortunately.
“I think unfortunately his death will bring attention to that. This is the standard that everyone – not just athletes – but everyone should try to attain, regardless of what you do in life, whether you’re rich or poor. You should be kind, approachable and value the things you should value – family, and things like that.”
As a student at St. Mary’s Redford in Detroit, Molly Duggan got tickets to see the Beatles at Olympia in the 1960s. But the teenager and her friends weren’t as interested in seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo as they were of getting a glimpse at Gordie and his sons, also in attendance that evening for the sold-out concert.
“We were looking around and two rows behind us are Gordie and his three sons,” Duggan said. “We spent the entire concert with our necks turned watching Gordie and his boys.
“I loved the guy. What a hero. He’s a role model for every man out there. You don’t see that anymore. He was just the most common soul, loving, gracious, class. That’s all I can say. He was the classiest man alive.”