Howe visitation draws thousands, Gretzky calls on NHL to retire No. 9

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Hockey dignitaries Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman shared fond memories of Gordie Howe. And thousands of fans lined up inside Joe Louis Arena to pay their respects to the legend known as Mr. Hockey.

Howe passed away at the age of 88, leading to tributes from so many from throughout the hockey world. Howe played 25 of his 26 NHL seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, and his family had encouraged fans to attend his public visitation Tuesday.

“Look at them,” said Red Wings GM Ken Holland of the crowd, as per the Detroit Free Press. “How many of those people never saw Gordie play one time? Not one time, because they’re not old enough. But there was a strong connection because they know that he was not only a great ambassador for the Detroit Red Wings but for the sport of hockey overall.”

Gretzky and Howe have been connected since Gretzky was just a young kid.

Their bond was initially captured in the famous photograph where Howe has the blade of a hockey stick playfully hooked around Gretzky’s neck, both smiling at that moment.

Only a few years later, Gretzky was playing against Howe. Two legends, at opposite ends of their playing careers, on the ice together.

“He was 49, 50 the very first time I played against him,” said Gretzky, as per the Detroit Free Press.

“The very first time I played against him, we were in the warm-up, and I was 17 and thought I was pretty cool, skating around in warm-up, and he kept winking at me. The third or fourth shift of the game, I took the puck from him and, before I knew it, this big stick pounded me on the hand, and I thought I broke my thumb. He took the puck and said, ‘Don’t ever take the puck from me.’

“I go, ‘OK.'”

Howe played professional hockey until the age of 52, winning the Stanley Cup four times, the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer six times and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player another six times.

Gretzky’s No. 99 is the only number retired throughout the entire NHL.

But The Great One would also have the NHL retire Howe’s No. 9 — if the decision was his.

“I’m pretty biased. If I had my way, I would do it,” Gretzky told reporters, when asked if the NHL should consider retiring Howe’s No. 9.

“That’s for the league. I’m not involved with the league right now. But I’m sure — listen, whatever they choose to do is going to be very special because Gordie deserves something really special and unique.”

“Simply, he’s just a really nice man,” said Steve Yzerman, who played his entire NHL career — 1,514 games from 1983 to 2006 — with the Red Wings.

“I think the first time I actually met him was just down the hall, walking in when I was drafted, my first year, literally walking down to the locker room. Small group of people, which included Gordie, walking by and he just walked up, introduced himself, shook my hand and, as he does with everyone, took some time to talk, tell a couple of stories when he was 18 years old and from that point on — I mean, just a nice man who was always thoughtful.”

“Gordie was the greatest hockey player of all time, and people had pride in Detroit saying, ‘Yeah, Gordie Howe, the Red Wings, they’re great,'” famed Detroit Tiger and baseball Hall of Famer Al Kaline told NHL.com.

“Not very many people and not very many towns can say they had the greatest in their city, and Gordie Howe was the greatest.”