Gordie Howe, ‘Mr. Hockey,’ recalled as tough on the ice, generous off it

Hall of Fame NHL defenseman Bobby Orr smiles as Dr. Murray Howe, son of Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, gives a eulogy in honor of his father during a memorial Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on June 15. Seated in front of Orr is Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. (Photos by Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

Hall of Fame NHL defenseman Bobby Orr smiles as Dr. Murray Howe, son of Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, gives a eulogy in honor of his father during a memorial Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on June 15. Seated in front of Orr is Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. (Photos by Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

NHL greats, dignitaries among attendees for hockey legend’s memorial Mass at cathedral

A portrait of Detroit Red Wings great Gordie Howe is displayed next to his casket inside the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on June 15.

A portrait of Detroit Red Wings great Gordie Howe is displayed next to his casket inside the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on June 15.

DETROIT — Family, friends and fans crowded into the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on June 15 to pay tribute to the life of “Mr. Hockey,” Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe.

Howe, a hockey Hall of Famer and one of the most celebrated athletes of his generation, died June 10 at the age of 88.

The memorial Mass at Detroit’s cathedral drew dozens of NHL dignitaries from across North America, including NHL greats Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Ted Lindsay, Guy LaFleur, Steve Yzerman and Chris Chelios, along with many current Detroit Red Wings and alumni. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daley, and former Red Wings coaches Mike Babcock and Scotty Bowman were among the attendees, as well as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Howe’s casket, decorated with red and white flowers — Red Wings colors — was placed in front of the altar during the Mass next to a picture of the late Hall of Famer, as the cathedral choir sang traditional hymns.

Fr. J.J. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, offers a hug to family members of Gordie Howe during a memorial Mass celebrated for Howe on June 15.

Fr. J.J. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, offers a hug to family members of Gordie Howe during a memorial Mass celebrated for Howe on June 15.

While Howe’s prowess and toughness on the ice was well-documented, it was his generosity and selflessness off it that touched mourners.

“He was a role model as a hockey player, a role model as a father, and a role model as an ambassador,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told The Michigan Catholic. “Everyone knew him as a superstar on the ice, but he was humble off the ice.”

Dr. Murray Howe, who gave a eulogy for his father before the Mass, recalled that “Mr. Hockey” always had time for everyone, no matter where he was.

“Dad was upright. He believed in being compassionate, respectful and using good manners, but also standing up for what is right. He tried to instill those traits in all those who were around, especially kids,” Dr. Howe said.

“If a fan told him a story, he would not interrupt, no matter how long they spoke. He would not correct them, even if they insisted they watched him play in the summer Olympics in 1906,” Dr. Howe said to laughter.

Although Gordie Howe “did not lead the league in church attendance,” Dr. Howe said, “his life was the epitome of the faithful servant.”

Dr. Murray Howe, son of Gordie Howe, gives a eulogy for his father before the memorial Mass on June 15.

Dr. Murray Howe, son of Gordie Howe, gives a eulogy for his father before the memorial Mass on June 15.

“Jesus tells us, ‘Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did to me.’ ‘Mr. Hockey’ loved God, but he loved everyone,” Dr. Howe said.

Though Gordie Howe was not Catholic, he would always respond generously whenever asked to help — and sometimes even when he wasn’t — said cathedral rector Fr. J.J. Mech, a longtime friend of the Howe family who celebrated the memorial Mass at the family’s request.

“Gordie loved to help,” Fr. Mech said in his homily. “He loved to be busy. In recent years, he was taking turns living with all the kids, rotating around, and they’d wake up and he wasn’t there. He was raking the neighbor’s lawn. You couldn’t stop him.”

Mike “Doc” Emrick, NHL play-by-play announcer for NBC Sports, described Howe as “a wonderful human being who could also play hockey really well.”

“He really lived what Jesus taught. He may not have been someone who talked about the Scriptures and all of that, but he lived it,” said Emrick, who lives in St. Clair. “Most people, I think, when this happens, they don’t want to hear about it as much as they want to see it. And if they see it, then they believe it.”

A fan in a No. 9 Howe jersey stands and applauds as Dr. Murray Howe, son of Gordie Howe, gives a eulogy for his father.

A fan in a No. 9 Howe jersey stands and applauds as Dr. Murray Howe, son of Gordie Howe, gives a eulogy for his father.

Emrick painted a picture of Howe’s graciousness, saying if there were a map of the United States with a red dot for every fan whose hand he shook, “you would see lights in every state and enormous concentrations of them,” Emrick said. “He met so many people in his lifetime and he was good to all of them.”

Many of those fans found a seat inside the cathedral, with a handful donning Red Wings “No. 9” jerseys. Christine Wofford, a lifelong Red Wings fan who attended the Mass, carried a large cutout of Howe’s famed jersey number.

Wofford was pleased to hear stories of the hockey legend’s approachableness and friendly demeanor.

“I’m really floored by finding out what he really was like. I didn’t know he was such a people person,” Wofford said. “That’s just comforting to hear how much he loved his fans and the kids. He’s just a wonderful person.”

Howe was known throughout the Detroit area as being generous with his time and talents, said Deacon Bill Jamieson of St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms. Deacon Jamieson, who from 1982-96 worked as public relations director for the Red Wings, said Howe needed no instruction when it came to being charitable.

A program featuring Gordie Howe's likeness was given to those attending the Mass.

A program featuring Gordie Howe’s likeness was given to those attending the Mass.

“He was always available when we’d do a charity event, and he didn’t need much guidance,” said Deacon Jamieson, who in 2009 assisted at the funeral of Howe’s wife, Colleen. “I’d just try to step back and watch, and I was allegedly the coordinator.”

Of course, Howe wasn’t always as pleasant to the players he played against, but that was part of his persona, too.

Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer who grew up watching Howe skate circles around opponents in the late 1960s, used to write book reports on Howe in school.

“I wasn’t a great student, but the only time I ever got an ‘A’ on a book report is because I read a Gordie Howe book,” Gretzky told reporters after the Mass. “That was my life. I knew everything about him. He’s a wonderful man, and my gosh, the world’s not as good a place today as it was the other day when he was here.”

Gretzky said Howe was responsible for putting hockey on the map in the United States, crediting Mr. Hockey with inspiring one of the Motor City’s many nicknames.

Wayne Gretzky and his wife, Janet Jones, look on during the memorial Mass.

NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky and his wife, Janet Jones, look on during the memorial Mass.

“‘Hockeytown, USA,’ in Detroit is because of Gordie Howe,” Gretzky said. “Before Gordie got to Detroit, it was the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians. Hockey was Canada. Gordie Howe put his foot in the door in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and young kids in the United States started saying ‘I want to be a hockey player.’”

Former Red Wings forward Joe Kocur said Howe embraced Detroit just as much as Detroiters embraced him.

“He went everyone: to ice rinks, to libraries, to schools,” Kocur said. “He wanted to get out and meet the people and show that this was home to him. He was proud of it.”

Howe’s toughness on the ice earned him a reputation as a fierce competitor — a “Gordie Howe hat trick” is known as a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game — but that didn’t stop even his opponents from loving No. 9, Gretzky said.

“Everybody loved him,” Gretzky said. “Even the guys he elbowed and knocked their teeth out still had good things to say about him.”


Photo gallery: View more photos from the memorial Mass for Gordie Howe at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Deacon Bill Jamieson, former director of public relations for the Detroit Red Wings and a deacon at St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms , incenses the congregation during the memorial Mass as Howe's casket lies in front of the altar. “You’re really inspired by somebody like that, how he treated people," Deacon Jamieson said afterward. "I have to do the same. I have to be like that. (That's why people say) 'when I grow up, I want to be like Gordie Howe.'”

Deacon Bill Jamieson, former director of public relations for the Detroit Red Wings and a deacon at St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms , incenses the congregation during the memorial Mass as Gordie Howe’s casket lies in front of the altar. “You’re really inspired by somebody like that, how he treated people,” Deacon Jamieson said of Howe. “I have to do the same. I have to be like that. (That’s why people say) ‘when I grow up, I want to be like Gordie Howe.’”