DETROIT – Two stars that played their entire pro careers in Detroit – a combined 44 seasons – were among the earliest to arrive at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday to pay their respects to Gordie Howe and his family during a public visitation for the hockey icon.
Detroit Tigers great Al Kaline and Red Wings hall-of-fame legend Steve Yzerman were young men when they began friendships with Mr. Hockey.
The two men, who spent their whole playing careers in the Motor City, were among many fans, admirers and hockey dignitaries who came to pay their respects to Howe, the hockey icon, who died last Friday at the age of 88.
“As great as he was he was kind of a modest guy in a lot of ways,” Kaline said. “But this is really fitting. … Not very many people, and not very many towns, can say they had the greatest in their city, and Gordie Howe was the greatest.”
Kaline had just won the American League batting crown in 1955 when he met Howe, then a 27-year-old who was well on his way to hockey immortality. By the time these two great athletes struck up a bond, the Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup four times in six seasons and Howe had captured the Art Ross Trophy in four consecutive campaigns as the league’s top point scorer.
“I had just won the batting title so I figured I’d be with Detroit a few years before they got rid of me,” Kaline joked Tuesday morning. “I moved to Detroit, bought a home, and went to my first hockey game at Olympia with a friend of mine, a guy named Frank Carlin, who also was a friend of Gordie’s. We went to the hockey game and afterwards we went out to eat.”
That sparked a friendship, which lasted decades and produced many fun moments on the golf course, ball diamond and hockey rink.
Having played some youth ball back in Saskatchewan, Howe often tried to persuade Kaline to set up a batting practice session at Tiger Stadium for some of the Red Wings.
Finally, Kaline gave in, creating one of the batting champion’s favorite memories of Howe.
“Gordie put on a Tiger uniform, and of course, Gordie when he took off his shirt everybody – and back in those days particularly – Gordie didn’t have any shoulders,” said Kaline, who was inducted into Cooperstown in 1980. “His arms went right up to his neck. He had the biggest pair of arms and all the Tiger players were like, ‘Man, what a beast he is!’ But anyhow, he got out there, struggled a little bit, naturally so, probably never played much baseball or softball in his day – but finally he was able to hit a ball out of the ballpark, and I’ll tell you what, the expression on his face looked like he just won the Stanley Cup. He was so thrilled that he finally hit a ball over the fence.”
When it became Howe’s time to pay it forward to his baseball-playing friend, Kaline didn’t find the same success on the ice as Gordie did at the plate.
“Being from Baltimore I never skated before in my life,” Kaline said. “I borrowed a pair of skates and I was a one-leg pusher, you know, holding onto the boards. And Gordie came by, fooling around, and gave me one of his famous elbows. I can always say Gordie gave me an elbow and knocked me into the boards.”
But that’s the only time he knocked down his friend.
“I’m not educated enough to talk about how much pride I felt to be a friend of Gordie Howe,” Kaline said. “What a great human being.”
Yzerman shares many of the same sentiments on Howe’s personality and demeanor. He was just 18 years old when Howe introduced himself to the budding star, who just weeks earlier was selected by the Red Wings in the first round of the 1983 NHL draft.
Though Yzerman’s relationship with Howe was vastly different than Kaline’s, it was just as meaningful, and maybe more so since he played the same sport and could relate to his playing experiences.
“With Gordie he just more or less took the time to sit down and talk,” said Yzerman, the longtime Red Wings captain. “It was really enlightening to hear some of the stories of the things they went through. You have a vision of how they were, how they played and acted and whatnot, and they would talk to you about their teammates and situations they were in. Usually they were all very humorous and very lighthearted and kind of helped you put things in perspective, whether you were struggling or losing, disappointing seasons or whatnot, he played a long time so he had a lot of things to share with you. But the biggest thing I took away is his humility and how he took time for people and treated everyone with respect.”
Two others who greatly appreciated their friendships with Gordie and his late wife, Colleen, are Mike and Marian Ilitch, the Red Wings’ owners, who couldn’t attend the visitation. However, the Ilitches wanted to convey their sympathy to the family and let them know how dearly they already miss their friend.
Other hockey personalities who attended Tuesday's visitation included Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and forward Drew Miller, along with former Wings Patrick Eaves, Kris Draper, Todd Bertuzzi, Eddie Mio, Nick Libett, and Gerry Abel, son of former Wings great Sid Abel.
The visitation was originally planned for 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but Mark Howe instructed arena officials to not turn anyone away.
“I actually talked to Mark about that too,” Yzerman said. “I said, ‘It looks like you’re gonna have a busy day here.’ He said they’ll stay until the last person leaves, and I’m not surprised. If you had a chance to run into Gordie and even Mark, they always have time for everyone. 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.”