A gifted warrior on the ice and a soft-spoken, gentle man off it, Gordie Howe was remembered Wednesday as a hockey legend who treated all around him with warmth, respect and kindness.
“He was irresistible,” said son Murray. “Though he was the size of a gorilla, little kids and little old ladies alike flocked to him the moment he disarmed them with his playful grin and his huge open arms. And Dad fed off their love and their positive energy and it brought him to life no matter how tired or sore he was.
“He made everyone feel as if they were the most special person on the planet.”
Howe died Friday at age 88. His funeral came a day after thousands of people — famous and relatively anonymous — paid respects to Howe during a visitation at Joe Louis Arena.
The adoration for the man many say is the best to ever play the game was on display as dozens of fans waited in light rain to land a seat inside the packed Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Two large buses — with signs displaying “Farewell Gordie Howe” — also dropped off mourners.
Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer along with top executives Gary Bettman, Brian Burke and Glen Sather also attended. A few fans wore red and white No. 9 Howe jerseys at the service, which was open to the public.
“I wasn’t a great student,” Gretzky said. “The only time I think I ever got an A on a book report is because I did a book report on a Gordie Howe book.”
Murray delivered a heartfelt eulogy at his father’s funeral, sharing numerous amusing and touching stories about his dad with some 900 mourners.
“He was never late for anything,” he said. “To him it was courtesy. He made it a point to show up early and to chat with whomever he happened to meet and ask if he could help them.
“It was not surprising to find him helping the servers to set up tables at events where he was the featured speaker.”
He added there are “endless superlatives that come to mind when describing my dad,” calling Mr. Hockey beloved, fearless, loyal, tough, graceful, playful, handsome and thoughtful, among other adjectives.
Howe, a native of Floral, Sask., made his debut with the Red Wings in 1946 and spent most of his long career in Detroit. He was an offensive force on the ice and played with a ruthless, physical edge that instilled fear in his opponents.
“I don’t know of any other human being that can go and knock out teeth, give people cuts, bumps and bruises, punch them in the nose or elbow them in the nose, and they revered the man,” said Howe’s son, Mark.
Murray recalled that he once asked his father, who suffered a stroke in 2014, what he wanted him to say in his eulogy.
“He said ‘Say this: Finally, the end of the third period.’ Then he added ‘I hope there’s a good hockey team in heaven,“’ Murray recalled. “Dad all I can say is, once you join the team, they won’t just be good, they will be great.”
Howe came down with pneumonia earlier this spring and while he recovered, he “lost his desire to eat or drink after that,” Murray said.
“It was clear he was no longer having fun,” he said. “Dad always said ‘If it’s not fun, it’s time to do something else.’ So we filled his final days surrounding him with friends and family and he knew he was loved.
“Mr. Hockey left the world with no regrets and although he did not lead the league in church attendance, his life has been the epitome of a faithful servant.”
Murray, a doctor, spoke on behalf of the family at the service. Howe also left behind son Marty, his daughter Cathy and nine grandchildren. His wife Colleen died in 2009 from Pick’s disease.
“I’m hoping and praying he and Mom are just having a wonderful time together right now,” Mark said.
Father J.J. Mech, who presided over the service, also shared several classic Howe anecdotes, while some of Howe’s grandchildren delivered readings.
Former Red Wings coaches Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock as well as current and former Red Wings players were also among the mourners at the church, which once hosted Pope John Paul II and is about 10 kilometres from Joe Louis Arena.
Howe set NHL records with 801 goals and 1,850 points that held up until Gretzky broke them. Gretzky said he felt somewhat embarrassed about eclipsing the records because their eras were so different.
He recalled a chat he had with his father Walter when he was close to breaking Howe’s career points record.
“My dad said, ‘He’s what you should be when somebody is closing in on your records. He’s genuinely happy for you and that’s more important than anything,“’ Gretzky said during the visitation.
Howe won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer on six occasions and also won the Hart Trophy as MVP six times.
“He was a real gentleman,” Lafleur said. “He was great. He was just unbelievable for hockey and what he did for the NHL.”
Known for his famous elbows, Howe left his wicked mean streak on the ice.
“He was a special guy,” Gretzky said. “He never asked for anything from anybody. But he would do anything for anyone.”