Gordie Howe celebration shifts to funeral in the Motor City

A fan leaves a tribute to Gordie Howe, the man known as Mr. Hockey, outside Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings, his team for much of his NHL Hall of Fame career, Tuesday, June 14, 2016 in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

DETROIT (AP) — Gordie Howe has drawn some of the biggest names in hockey, including Wayne Gretzky and Gary Bettman, to the Motor City to celebrate his life and legacy.

Bobby Orr was expected to also attend Howe’s funeral that was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday in a packed Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Murray Howe, one of Mr. Hockey’s four children, was to give the eulogy. The recessional song was to be “Going Up Yonder,” by Walter Hawkins.

Dozens of fans were standing in line in light rain, waiting to get in the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament a couple hours before the funeral, which the family requested be open to the public. Constructed began on the towering church in 1905 and it hosted Pope John Paul II in 1987.

Thousands of people, famous and relatively anonymous, paid respects to Howe at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday. He died Friday at 88.

The home of the Detroit Red Wings, Howe’s team for more than two decades and four Stanley Cup championships, was opened at 9 a.m. and was scheduled to close at 9 p.m. — for No. 9, of course — but so many people showed up that the visitation lasted longer than planned.

Paul Snapp was ready and willing to wait as long as it took to honor his hero.

The 66-year-old Snapp was one of more than 100 people waiting outside to get in Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday afternoon. Inside, a longer line snaked through the darkened arena.

“I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity to see him one more time for anything in the world,” said Snapp, sporting Howe’s No. 9 Detroit Vipers jersey from his one-game stint as a 69-year-old forward during the 1997-98 International Hockey League season, his sixth decade of professional hockey.

Howe broke records, threw elbows and fists and became an idol to Gretzky and many others while elevating the profile the NHL had in the U.S. With strength, speed and grit, he set NHL records with 801 goals and 1,850 points — mostly with the Red Wings — that stood until Gretzky came along.

Gretzky said he was “embarrassed” to break Howe’s records because he played in an incomparable era.

The Great One wore No. 99 in a tribute to Howe, a man he got to know when he was a kid.

“Not everybody gets to meet their hero or their idol,” Gretzky said. “And sometimes when you meet them, it wasn’t as good as you thought it would be. I got so lucky that the guy I chose happened to be so special.”

Howe had bulging muscles — unlike many players in his day — on his 6-foot, 205-pound frame and had a great shot both with his fist and stick.

“He had so much power,” said Scotty Bowman, who won an NHL-record ninth Stanley Cup as a coach with the Red Wings in 2002. “He was perfect. If you were going to make a mold of a player, you would want to make it of Gordie.”

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock met Howe in Edmonton, Alberta, about six decades ago when he was a kid. Like a lot of people in western Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, Hitchcock grew up rooting for the Red Wings because of Howe. Hitchcock became one of Howe’s many friends in the early 1990s when he was an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Flyers and Howe’s son, Mark, was playing for them toward the end of his Hall of Fame career.

“Gordie would spend all day and night at the rink because he just loved the game and the people in it,” Hitchcock said Wednesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “He would come to the skate, stay to visit with me when the guys went home, we’d go to lunch.

“We would come back to talk some more and then he would go up to the press box for warmups before going to his seat for the game. He would never sit in a box. He always sat in his seat in Philadelphia. And if you got an autograph from him back then or at any time in his life, he would look you in the eye and you could read every letter of his name because that’s what kind of great guy he was.”

>>Our sister station WOOD-TV first reported this story

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