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Visitation is personal for Howe's fans

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings

Fans lined up early Tuesday morning to pay their respects to Gordie Howe, who is lying in state at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday. (Photo by Bill Roose/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – As a Red Wing, Gordie Howe never skated at Joe Louis Arena but the hockey icon will take his final shift inside the 37-year-old building on Tuesday.

It’s expected that thousands will file by his casket to pay their final respects to the man known globally as Mr. Hockey.

In a few short hours Monday afternoon, a crew of roughly 25 men laid red carpet, rigged lighting, and hung black drapes over sections of dasher boards to transform the arena floor into a kind of hockey cathedral of worship for the 12-hour public visitation.

Mr. Howe’s flower-draped casket will lie in state until 9 p.m., an obvious symbolic gesture to the greatest Red Wing of all time. His casket is positioned at the east end of the rink just inside the blue line of the zone where the Red Wings shoot for two periods each game.

Justin DeSantis, an operations manager for Olympia Entertainment who oversaw Monday’s set up, said Tuesday’s visitation is personal to so many, including himself.

“One of the first events I did was a small, little event we did in the Olympia Club involving the Gordie Howe Foundation and that was 11-12 years ago,” DeSantis said. “He was one of the first famous people that I had to deal with on an event. He couldn’t have been a more nice, genuine guy. I know you hear that from everybody but it hits home for me because it he was one of the first, substantial people I met when I started with the company. So that part’s unique for me.”

It’s from the arena floor where Mr. Howe’s family, including his sons, Mark and Marty, will welcome their dad’s former teammates, friends, admirers and fans of the hockey giant, who died last Friday after years of battling poor health.

Mr. Howe and his two sons played together for several seasons in the World Hockey Association and one NHL campaign in Hartford. It was with the Whalers that the Howes all played once as father and sons at JLA. The trio actually started the game when coach Don Blackburn sent them to center ice to take the opening face off against the Red Wings on March 12, 1980.

Mr. Howe played at the Joe two other times: with the Whalers (Jan. 12, 1980) and in the 1980 All-Star Game.

A lot of what occurs at the JLA visitation will be just as special as the absolutely wonderful tribute and public outpouring for Montreal legend Jean Beliveau, who laid in state at the Molson Centre in 2014.

The arena bowl is dark with low light illuminating the velvet-roped carpet, which runs nearly the entire length of the rink to the casket. His iconic No. 9 banner is lowered behind the closed casket with the four Stanley Cup banners – two on each side – flanking his number.

A funeral mass will take place Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, located at 9844 Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

Because of the limited seating inside the Cathedral, the Howe family is asking that fans who want to pay their respects attend Tuesday’s visitation instead of the funeral.

“Gordie always had a special connection with the fans, so it was important to us to allow the public into the funeral service because it’s the way he would have done it,” Mark Howe said in a released statement. “However, we have heard from many friends, former teammates, NHL personnel and other prominent figures in the hockey world who will be attending the service to pay tribute, so we would like to urge fans to attend Tuesday’s public visitation to ensure all looking to pay their final respects will be able to do so.”

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