Gordie Howe is one of the greatest athletes the city of Detroit had ever seen. On Tuesday, the Howe family opted to have a public visitation for Mr. Hockey in Joe Louis Arena, currently the home of the Detroit Red Wings. Luminaries from the sporting world as well as Howe's many fans were invited to come pay their last respects.

The visitation, which began at 9 a.m. and will end at 9 p.m., in honor of the number Howe made iconic in the city, had a steady stream of mourners from the beginning and should end up numbering in the high thousands before it is over.

The family will have a formal funeral Wednesday in Detroit before Howe is to be cremated as his beloved wife Colleen was.

Among the many mourners to travel to Detroit, Wayne Gretzky who idolized Howe as a child and formed a close relationship with the legend over the years as the Great One chased down and topped many of the records previously set by Mr. Hockey.

Gretzky, who was choked up as he shared his memories of Howe, had many nice things to say about his hero when he met with the media:

Steve Yzerman, the Red Wings captain whose No. 19 hangs in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena along with Howe's No. 9, also traveled up from Tampa to remember the icon with whom he grew close. Tigers great Al Kaline, one of Howe's contemporaries, also was among the prominent ex-Detroit athletes to pay respects to the late Howe. Former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, who spent many of his years coaching against Howe, as well as current Red Wings GM Ken Holland were also among those with ties to the organization in attendance.

Gretzky, Kaline, Holland and Bowman, as well as Howe's sons Mark, Marty, Murray and his grandsons and close friend Felix Gatt, all were among the pallbearers that guided Howe's casket to the arena floor.

Howe's casket rested beneath the No. 9 banner, denoting his retired number, that was lowed from the rafters. Also lowered were the four Stanley Cup banners Howe helped the Red Wings attain early in his career. The area where people could pay their respects also was filled with memorabilia and photographs from Howe's lengthy hockey career.

While there were many famous visitors, there were so many more everyday people that felt a special connection with Howe, like Lydia Ernatt who worked at Red Wings games over 60 years ago.

The many visitors to come share their condolences with Howe's family also helped fill giant posters with messages to the late hockey great. According to NHL.com's Nick Cotsonika, there was barely any room left with five hours to go in the visitation.

Few athletes command this kind of respect and admiration. Howe's wake resembled that of a chief of state, not a hockey player. But that just goes to show how massive an impact he had. It wasn't just an impact on hockey, either.

The most important thing about Howe, as we remember now, wasn't how he performed on the ice. It was how he treated people off of it. The consummate gentleman and ambassador, he had time for everyone. So it's no wonder that many thousands had come to be in his presence one last time to say goodbye and a heartfelt thank you to one of the all-time great players and all-time great people.

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Fans come to pay their respects to late NHL legend Gordie Howe in Detroit. Getty Images