On Friday at the Joe Louis Arena, where the Detroit Red Wings—Gordie Howe’s first team—play, workers put banners on either side of the building that read “Thank You Mr. Hockey.” It marked the beginning of a day filled with tributes for the man who brought four Stanley Cups to the city. Steve Yzerman called Howe a Detroit icon; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman described Howe’s commitment to Detroit; the head of the Detroit Lions, the city’s pro football team, described his “imprint” on the city; and Wayne Gretzky, “the Great One,” called Howe the greatest hockey player ever.
On the front steps of “the Joe” Friday, there’s a single bouquet of flowers. That afternoon, a car stops and a man jumps out to take a quick photo before hitting the road again. Those who stay longer than two minutes aren’t hockey fans; they’re Detroiters exercising on the stairs.
It’s a reminder that Howe was from a different era, for both hockey and for the city.
Gordie Howe first tried out for the Detroit Red Wings in 1944. It was Detroit’s golden age, a time of wealth and prosperity for the city, when jobs at the booming automobile manufacturers were plentiful. And yet when Howe signed his first contract with the Red Wings, his signing bonus was a team jacket.
He soon became a champion, winning four Stanley Cups between 1950 and 1955. He then became a legend, playing in five different decades in the NHL. And Howe cared deeply for the fans who backed the team. On one occasion, when his team’s goalie declined to give an autograph, Howe lambasted his teammate, saying he’d break his arms and legs if he didn’t go back and sign the fan’s program.
Before Howe retired for good in 1980, he was already in the Hockey Hall of Fame, a member of the Order of Canada and a grandfather. In a testament to his longevity, and his genes, his son Mark got the assist on Howe’s last goal.
These were the stories being passed down on Canadian sports radio stations Friday as former coaches and teammates lined up to talk about Howe’s goal-scoring prowess, his incredible legibility when writing his autograph and his deadly elbows on the ice.
But on the other side of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ont., to Detroit, the legend of Gordie Howe is much harder to discern. Detroit sports-radio hosts mentioned Howe’s death—and the Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, an assist and a fight in one game)—but on phone-in Fridays, where callers often dictate where the conversation goes, much of Detroit’s sports talk revolved around the NBA finals, Detroit Tigers baseball and, most of all, the legacy of Muhammad Ali, who was being laid to rest that same day in Louisville, Ky. Even in Detroit, Mr. Hockey’s status doesn’t rival “The Greatest.”
Detroit is still dubbed “Hockeytown,” yet there were few stories of Howe’s hockey greatness being shared among locals, at least not in venues in which one might think they would be. At one local sports bar by the Detroit River known for its Red Wings fandom, No. 9 is absent from the sports memorabilia on the walls. At the Hockeytown Cafe downtown, five young men sat at the bar Friday evening—none old enough to have seen Howe play—watching basketball.
Since Howe last suited up for the Red Wings in 1971, Detroit has won four more Stanley Cups, but lost more than half its population. The land that encompassed Olympia Stadium, where Howe scored the bulk of his 801 NHL goals (second all-time), is now an armoury. Camouflage trucks are surrounded by barbwire fence. There is nothing to indicate it was the site of so many of Howe’s most incredible hockey feats.
A short drive down the street from where the arena stood, Howe met Colleen, his future wife of 55 years, at the popular bowling alley Lucky Strike Lanes in the early 1950s. Today, the same street corner is home to a church on one side and abandoned commercial buildings on the other. Nearby, a residential subdivision is plagued with more boarded-up homes.
Next season, the Detroit Red Wings will play their final season at Joe Louis Arena before moving to a new complex—the third since Howe joined the team and the first he will never have skated in. The legend of “Mr. Hockey,” meanwhile, remains firmly rooted north of the border.
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Gordie Howe (right) sends Toronto's Gordie Hannigan into the boards, and into a ref, during Stanley Cup semi-finals in 1952.