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NHL to honor Gordie Howe

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (R) walks with New York Rangers president Glen Sather outside of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where Gordie Howe's funeral was held Wednesday in Detroit. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

The NHL is catching its breath after a an eventful week that saw the passing of the legendary Gordie Howe at age 88 and the Pittsburgh Penguins winning their fourth Stanley Cup championship.

On Wednesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly joined hundreds at Detroit's Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament for a funeral service that celebrated Mr. Hockey's life and career.

For days, Bettman has heard suggestions from fans and those inside hockey for ways to honor Howe, who truly was a pioneer of the game for his sensational performance on the ice and exemplary manners and generosity off it.

Some, including Wayne Gretzky, have been quoted as saying Howe's No. 9 should be retired from the game forever, as Gretzky's No. 99 was retired on Feb. 6, 2000 at the NHL's 50th All-Star Game. Others have suggested all 30 NHL teams wear a No. 9 patch on their jerseys next season.

"We're going to come up with something that's an enduring testament to Gordie," Bettman said Thursday from his office in New York. "There will be something that appropriately celebrates his life and creates a lasting tribute to his immortality. It will be something that will be special and enduring and permanent."

An emotional Bettman didn't speak with reporters outside the Detroit church where Howe was remembered in a funeral service that touched upon the player, husband, parent, grandparent and timeless fan favorite.

"The service was beautiful, done with elegance and grace - which was so befitting," the commissioner said. "This was clearly a testament to a man who was not just respected and revered, but beloved.

"The most moving part of the day, and what told me he was 'Mr. Hockey,' weren't necessarily the same thing. To me, the eulogy at a funeral is the most important thing, and Murray [Howe] couldn't have been more eloquent in encapsulating his father, as a father, a family man and as 'Mr. Hockey.'"

Bettman believes he first met Howe at a league event; perhaps it was an All-Star Game or another event, or maybe just a Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena.

"He couldn't have been more welcoming, more gracious. But he did start with an elbow," the commissioner said, laughing.

Bettman recalled the way Mr. Hockey would walk into a convention center, the site of an NHL All-Star Game Fan Fest, simply wade into a sea of people and be swallowed whole by the throng.

"There are a lot of players, a lot of people, who don't like being in those crowds," he said. "Gordie relished it. Little children who never actually saw him play would react to 'Mr. Hockey.' It looked like this was his greatest joy: playing with and smiling at or giving autographs to these young people, taking pictures with them."

Many have tried to define how much this legend meant to hockey and to the NHL. His almost-surreal statistics, longevity in the game and folksy appeal off the ice all make up the man who was Gordie Howe.

"The essence of Gordie is in his nickname," Bettman said. "Why else would you call someone 'Mr. Hockey' if he didn't exist at the very roots and foundation of our game? He was a unique blend of player. He was in the top five of NHL scoring for 20 years in a row. To have somebody that skilled and at the same time that physical was fairly unique. It still is.

"If you went around the room," the commissioner said with a chuckle of any gathering of Howe's former opponents, "they'd probably each have a memento."

By that, of course, he meant a scar, worn like a badge of honor. Indeed, several players at Tuesday's Joe Louis Arena visitation proudly showed creases and thin valleys in their faces that were courtesy of Howe -- who gave at least as good as he got.

"Gordie was emblematic of the game, an unpretentious man," Bettman said. "And his endurance is perhaps unmatched. The closest to him modern-day in terms of endurance has to be [44-year-old, 22-season veteran] Jaromir Jagr. Who plays that long in any sport? Even golfers don't last that long."

Howe's legacy is cast in cement. He forever will be remembered as one of the greatest who ever played the game, a man you couldn't possibly invent today. Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr spoke to that Wednesday at a gathering after the funeral.

"I truly believe that you can't do what this man has done and stay as humble as he stayed and as nice as he stayed," Orr said. "Nobody has or will ever be that guy. It won't happen."

Much of today's NHL, the commissioner believes, was built on Howe's impressive strength - both of body and character.

"Gordie is the foundation of the modern game," he said. "He was somebody who not only excelled on the ice and demonstrated what it took to be a hockey player, but somebody who was the consummate ambassador for the game."

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