Old hockey gloves, jerseys and framed photos were displayed on one side of Gordie Howe’s flower-draped coffin, friends and family members were seated on the other.
Standing nearby were some of hockey’s biggest names — Wayne Gretzky, Scotty Bowman and Steve Yzerman to name a few — who swapped stories and shared memories of the man known as Mr. Hockey.
“Somebody said it best this morning that (Jean) Beliveau, the Rocket (Maurice Richard) and Gordie — they were the three people that probably could change a hockey rink into a cathedral,” Gretzky said. “And when you walked in, it was more like a church today. It’s really special.”
The Joe Louis Arena doors opened Tuesday morning for the 12-hour public visitation to honour Howe, who died Friday at age 88.
A steady stream of fans and well-wishers shuffled slowly down a red carpet towards Howe’s coffin for the chance to say goodbye to the man many consider to be the greatest player ever.
“There won’t be another equal to Gordie Howe in my mind,” said Red Wings fan Jim McIntyre of Chatham, Ont. “In my mind, he was the king of hockey and he was also a prince of man.”
Howe was a star forward for the Red Wings during much of his NHL career, which started in 1946 and ended in 1980. Howe, born in Floral, Sask., played 32 pro seasons and won both the Art Ross Trophy as top scorer and Hart Trophy as MVP on six occasions.
But he could do much more than score. Howe was quick with an elbow and was as tough as nails. Opponents crossed him at their peril.
It was in stark contrast to his style off the ice. Howe was soft-spoken, friendly and had a gentle demeanour.
“Wherever I go — anywhere in the world — and people talk about the Red Wings, they talk about Gordie Howe,” Yzerman said. “They really do.”
Howe set NHL marks with 801 goals and 1,850 points. Those records were eventually eclipsed by Gretzky.
“He’s the nicest man I ever met,” said Gretzky, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’ve been lucky in my lifetime. I got to be part of hosting the Queen, my wife and I got to meet Pope John Paul, I got to light the torch at Vancouver at the Olympic Games and they’re all great honours.
“But when the boys asked me to be a pallbearer today, it was pretty special.”
Bowman was also among the pallbearers along with former Detroit Tigers outfielder Al Kaline.
A few dozen fans lined up outside the arena 90 minutes before the opening to be among the first to pay their respects. Others wrote messages of sympathy on two large banners outside the entrance.
Inside the arena, with soft red light shimmering against a black backdrop, the four Stanley Cup banners Howe won with Detroit in the early 1950s were displayed with his retired jersey banner.
Howe’s No. 9 was also projected on the arena floor and two screens ran slideshows of old photos.
“He always felt a need to perform each and every game and each and every practice,” said Gretzky, who attended with his father Walter. “That’s what separated Gordie Howe. That’s why he was Gordie Howe.
“He had a definite ambition that he was going to be the best player every night and every year and that’s how he lived. He never changed.”
Red Wings fan Bud Somerville spent the night on a folding chair outside the rink so that he’d be the first in line. The 60-year-old from Westland, Mich., said he was a teenager when he first met Howe at the old Detroit Olympia arena.
“He’s always been my favourite player, just nobody compared to him,” he said. “He was the greatest ever. They call Gretzky the greatest, but Mr. Hockey is the greatest.”
Howe’s funeral, which will also be open to the public, is set for Wednesday at Detroit’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
“My favourite Christmas ever was getting a Red Wing No. 9 jersey when I was five years old,” said Gretzky, whose famed No. 99 was a tribute to Howe. “It’s still the best Christmas present I ever got.”