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Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, To Be Remembered At Detroit Funeral

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in Detroit today, something approaching a state funeral is being held for the man affectionately known as Mr. Hockey. From the 1940s through the '70s, Gordie Howe was hockey's biggest star, playing mostly for the Detroit Red Wings. And despite retiring from the game decades ago, commentator John U. Bacon, who is from Michigan, says his impact continues until this day.

JOHN U BACON, BYLINE: Last Friday, hockey legend Gordie Howe passed away at age 88. Two days later, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup. They did it with a lineup that had more Americans than Canadians, even an American coach. That is Gordie Howe's legacy. Howe was skilled, smart and tough, the most complete player the game has ever produced. He was even ambidextrous, able to switch from a right-handed shot to a left-handed shot while barreling down on the goalie. Put it altogether, and you get what they called the Gordie Howe hat trick - a goal, an assist and a fight all in the same night.

During Howe's 26-year career, he set the records for most goals, most points, most games, most just about everything. He finished in the top 10 in scoring for 21 straight seasons. What Arnold Palmer and Pele did for their sports in America, Gordie Howe did for hockey. He was the sport's greatest ambassador, the man they called Mr. Hockey. But Howe stayed humble and always took the time for his fans. As fellow Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby said, the only guy in the locker room who didn't know Mr. Hockey was Mr. Hockey was Mr. Hockey.

But Howe's impact was bigger than a bunch of records. He was hockey's first breakout star in the states. His dominant play gave the league the boost it needed to double in size to a dozen teams in 1967, on the way to its current total of 30 teams. Howe inspired just about every town in Michigan to build an ice rink. The Penguins have seven players on the roster who played on those rinks in little league, in high school or in college. The head coach at the University of Michigan, Red Berenson, left Canada for Ann Arbor in 1958, in part so he could watch Gordie Howe play in Detroit.

The list of Americans playing for the Penguins include defenseman Ian Cole. His father, Doug, grew up playing hockey in Ann Arbor. He idolized Howe like everybody else, sparking a love for the game that he passed on to his son. When Ian was just 8 years old, he stood in line to meet Gordie Howe at a local rink. Ian asked him - Mr. Howe, what can I do to be a great player like you? Howe said, Sonny, I'm getting tell you the same thing I told Wayne Gretzky. You have two ears and one mouth. Keep two open and one shut. Howe signed Ian's book, ruffled his hair and said good luck, kid. Two days after Gordie Howe died, Ian Cole raised the Stanley Cup over his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GORDIE HOWE IS THE GREATEST OF THEM ALL")

BOB DAVIES AND MOE CHAPMAN: (Singing) Gordie Howe is the greatest of them all.

MONTAGNE: That's author and commentator John U. Bacon on the legacy of Gordie Howe. The hockey legend's funeral is being held today in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.