By: Will Burchfield
It was a special night at Joe Louis Arena on Friday night, because it was Gordie Howe Night, but it was also a night no different from any other.
Howe's presence pervades The Joe. His spirit is embodied by the Red Wings. Whenever they play at home, as they did on Friday night versus the Winnipeg Jets, Gordie Howe is brought back to life.
Mr. Hockey passed away in June at the age of 88.
For Howe's children, adjusting to life without their father has been difficult. But the stories they hear, stories that never seem to end, hark back to a time when Gordie was still here.
"It's something I've experienced my whole life, from the time I used to be in The Olympia as a little kid, running around in the bleachers there," Howe's son Mark said on Friday night. "Everybody knew I was Gordie Howe's son running around, and they always come up and tell you their story of meeting Gordie Howe."
Mark was in attendance at The Joe on Friday night along with his siblings Marty, Murray and Cathy. He said the flow of stories they heard of their father when he was alive has only grown stronger in the wake of his death.
"We hear things all the time and we get emails all the time. Somehow, people get a hold of us," Mark said. "And they just tell us all their stories."
There was the man, about a year and half ago, who waited in line at an autograph session for nearly two hours to get Howe's signature -- for the 22nd time.
"And he said he'd do it again," Mark smiled. "He just loves it. It's the favorite thing he does in his life."
There was the man who flew halfway across the world, from Paris to Detroit, to attend Howe's memorial service at Joe Louis Arena. He showed up in his No. 9 Howe jersey, paid his respects, turned around and went home. All in a day.
"It's far reaching," Mark said, "and we've always known that.
"During his funeral, as people were going through the procession, those are the things we heard."
It's a chorus they've known for their entire lives.
"Dad had just such a wonderful rapport with people. I always said he's a far better person than he was a hockey player, and I can tell that because everybody's who's met him never talks about him as a hockey player. They always talk about how he was as a person, how he treated them," Mark said.
There are stories that are original, and others that are recurring. Mark's lost track of how many times total strangers have approached him and recounted the following episode.
"They said they were in a restaurant and all of a sudden their dinner was paid for. It was my mom who used to do that kind of thing, unbeknownst to anybody," Mark said.
Howe's late wife Colleen founded the Howe foundation in 1993 to help underprivileged youth participate in the game of hockey.
"She was one of the most giving people I've ever met in my life," Mark said, "and she did it in a very quiet way."
Over his 26-year NHL career, Howe scored 801 goals, played in 23 All-Star Games, won six MVP awards and four Stanley Cups. He's unanimously remembered as one of the greatest players ever.
But that's not what stands out to the family members he left behind.
"We don't think about that. Gordie Howe being a hockey player means absolutely nothing to his children and to his family. We just know him as a fantastic role model and just a great, great individual and a great human being," Mark said.
As a kid, Mark said he rarely missed a game his dad played at The Detroit Olympia.
"But those are never, ever the first thoughts that come to your mind. It's always the interactions and the things that you did together as father and son," he said.
On Friday morning, as Mark was driving home from a dentist appointment, he passed by the Rackham Golf Course in Huntingon Woods. Instantly, he was reminded of playing there as a 10-year-old -- his first round of golf ever -- with his father by his side.
"And Dad laughed because the last two holes I couldn't finish, when it ended up I had the mumps and a temperature of about 103," Mark recalled. "Those are the things that you remember being Gordie Howe's son."
At Joe Louis Arena, Howe's No. 9 is painted behind each net. The Wings will wear a No. 9 patch on their jerseys throughout the season. Around the globe, hockey teams are following suit.
Like those that are sponsored by Legacy Global Sports, the company for which Travis Howe works. Travis is one of Mark's sons.
"They have a nine stitched onto all their jerseys," Mark said.
And like the youth hockey team in New Jersey that is coached by Nolan Howe, Mark's youngest son.
"They have a number nine on their helmets," said Mark.
It extends well beyond the family, as well.
"We're getting emails all the time, people are calling. They're trying to help, they want to help. They want to continue the legacy as much as we do. The response from the public has been fantastic," Mark said.
And like Gordie Howe Night at The Joe, it's really nothing new.
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