DETROIT – Mourners are bidding a final farewell to Gordie Howe at a Detroit cathedral today.
Fellow Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer along with top executives Gary Bettman, Brian Burke and Glen Sather are among the some 900 people attending Mr. Hockey’s funeral.
Dozens of fans waited in light rain to land a seat inside Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Two large buses — with signs displaying “Farewell Gordie Howe” also dropped off mourners.
Murray Howe, one of the hockey great’s four children, gave a heartfelt eulogy that included countless amusing and touching stories about his father.
He said there are “endless superlatives that come to mind when describing my dad.” Murray called his father fearless, loyal, tough, graceful, playful and thoughtful.
Howe died Friday at 88.
“How do I do justice to the life of a living legend — my own hero? I still pinch myself at the realization that he was my father,” Murray said.
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. Howe also left behind hockey-playing sons Mark and Marty, his daughter Cathy and nine grandchildren. His wife Colleen died in 2009 from Pick’s disease.
Father J.J. Mech, who presided over the service, also shared several classic Howe anecdotes, while some of Howe’s grandchildren delivered readings.
The funeral comes a day after thousands of people, famous and relatively anonymous, paid respects to Howe during a visitation at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday.
“He was a real gentleman,” Lafleur said as he entered the church Wednesday. “He was great. He was just unbelievable for hockey and what he did for the NHL.”
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 reckons he was about five years old when he first saw Howe on television.
He immediately became a fan of the Red Wings star. Gretzky soon had a red and white No. 9 jersey — still his all-time favourite Christmas gift — and even wanted to look like the rugged forward from Floral, Sask.
A couple years later, Gretzky walked into a barber shop in his hometown of Brantford, Ont., with a specific look in mind.
“I said, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut,'” Gretzky recalled at Tuesday’s visitation. “So I was enamoured by him from a young age.”
After spending a few hours on the arena floor during the visitation, Gretzky weighed in on how “Mr. Hockey” became his idol and a longtime friend.
“I was really lucky,” he said. “Not everybody gets to meet their hero or their idol and sometimes when you meet them it wasn’t as good as you thought it was going to be.
“And man, I got so lucky that the guy I chose happened to be so special.”
Howe made his debut with the Red Wings in 1946 and spent most of his long career in Detroit. He won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer on six occasions and also won the Hart Trophy as MVP six times.
Known for his famous elbows, Howe had a wicked mean streak. Off the ice though, he was gentle and soft spoken.
“He was a special guy,” Gretzky said. “He never asked for anything from anybody. But he would do anything for anyone.”
—With files from The Associated Press