Howe's night marked by laughs, tears

Gordie Howe Honored (4:18)

Mark Howe talks to Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun after his father, Gordie Howe, was honored at the Kinsmen Club of Saskatoon's annual sports celebrity dinner. (4:18)

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan -- He walked on his own from the shadows and into the spotlight to his place at the table of honor.

Though the steps might have been slow, maybe little more than a shuffle, they were nonetheless the steps of a giant.

And in the end, as the crowd in his hometown rose as one to celebrate one of the greatest athletes of all time, we should have expected nothing less from Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

"He knew what was going on. I could see it in his eyes," Hall of Famer Bobby Hull told a trio of reporters shortly after Howe was honored by the Saskatoon Kinsmen at their annual sports celebrity dinner.

As the event came to a close, Wayne Gretzky stood with Howe on the stage in the middle of a jam-packed ballroom and delivered a check for $25,000 for Alzheimer's research. The two hockey legends stood shoulder to shoulder with the crowd of 1,500 again on its feet, and Gretzky spoke of his affection for the entire Howe family.

And then, as if to punctuate the evening, Gretzky said of Howe: "He was, is and will always be the greatest hockey player of all time."

And the crowd erupted again.

Someone yelled out, "We love you Gordie," and the white-haired legend responded with a broad smile.

Several hours earlier, Howe, 86, had been downstairs for a family photo that many in his family believed might never be taken.

Howe's son, Mark Howe, talked about how Gordie's caregivers in Texas suggested in recent months that it was time for the family to let go, to let him pass. Mark told them that, with all due respect, he knew his dad better than anyone and he wasn't ready to go.

And he wasn't.

In spite of dementia and a serious stroke suffered last fall, stem cell procedures in Mexico heralded a dramatic recovery for Gordie Howe.

And so here he was on a frosty Friday night in his hometown of Saskatoon surrounded by some of the game's biggest names.

During the photo session, Dennis Hull (brother of Bobby Hull and uncle to fellow Hall of Famer Brett Hull, who were both also in attendance) sat next to Howe, who leaned in close and made as though to give one of his patented left-hand jabs.

Dennis Hull's older brother, Bobby, broke down in tears when he saw Howe and the two embraced.

A moment in time?

More like a moment for all time.

"We're all here because we owe a tremendous amount not only to Gordie, but to the game," Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald told ESPN.com.

"To have the name Mr. Hockey is so fitting for Gordie. How he played, how long he played the way he played. ... It's pretty cool. It's an honor for all of us."

At its most basic, this was a chance for a community to honor and thank one of its own.

As master of ceremonies and another Saskatchewan boy made good, former NHLer Kelly Chase noted the connection between Howe and this community will last "for eternity."

Howe was born in nearby Floral but moved to Saskatoon shortly thereafter.

You can hardly turn around in this prairie city without bumping into a field or complex that bears the Howe name. Indeed, the former Kinsmen Arena was renamed Friday night as Gordie Howe Kinsmen Arena.

Even after a trip that took more than 12 hours to get him from Texas to Saskatoon, Howe still had enough of the old Howe sense of humor that he playfully extended an elbow to another passenger on the elevator on the way up to his room Thursday evening.

Did he understand the moment Friday evening?

Mark Howe said that as the evening went along and the stories were told, especially those told by Bobby Hull and Gretzky, his father became more and more engaged.

But even if Mr. Hockey might need to see the tape of the evening's proceedings to be fully reminded of everything that unfolded, this is a night that will resonate for all who were witness.

"I know one thing," Bobby Hull said. "If this was his last hurrah, that was a great one."

Five years ago, Gretzky flew Howe into this event as a surprise along with the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This time around, Gretzky so understood the import of the occasion that he brought members of his family to share in the celebration, including his two older sons. He wanted them to see firsthand how important the Howes were to him and to an entire nation.

Gretzky joked with his boys as they boarded their flight in California for frosty Saskatoon that the only down part of the celebration was that Mr. Hockey wasn't born in Mexico, where the temperatures would be nicer.

And maybe that's the greater story told on this night: the bond that exists between a community and its sports stars, the love of a country for its game and the place that family plays in all of this, how those emotions and values are handed on from one generation to another.

"He was, is and will always be the greatest hockey player of all time." Wayne Gretzky, on Gordie Howe

In genealogical terms, this event wasn't just a hockey family tree, it was a tree whose branches represented pure hockey royalty. Gordie Howe, Mark Howe, Bobby Hull, Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky are all Hall of Famers bound not just by a game, but by their affection for each other and their families; bound by their respect for each other and their accomplishments and, ultimately, their humility.

"I often say this, nobody handles people like Gordie," Gretzky said. "He's just a natural. He's at ease. He treats everyone the same, whether it's the prime minister of Canada or somebody that lives on a farm in Saskatchewan. He's no different. He is what he is. When you see Gordie Howe as a person, as a father, as an athlete, he's really unique."

Marty McSorley played with Gretzky in Los Angeles when Gretzky was about to break Howe's all-time goal total. Howe had been traveling with the team to be there when the record fell.

"I mean, I was so fortunate to, obviously, have so many great moments being on the team with Wayne. And what was really fortunate was Wayne took his time breaking Gordie's record. We used to tease him that Gordie's traveling more now following Wayne around than when he played," said McSorley, who assisted on that record-breaking goal.

"But it gave us as a team a great opportunity to know the man. I mean, obviously, you have so much respect for Gordie Howe, and he taught us what it takes to be a good NHLer, to be responsible, to really want to play and carry yourself with dignity. But to be around him, I was standing there at a morning skate. We were on the bench watching the other team, and I got the elbow in the ribs. I looked to my right, and there was a snicker from Gordie. He loved to be around the guys. He loved to be in the locker room. He was one of us, but somebody that we put on such a pedestal. It was phenomenal. It was really great. It was almost like we were sad when Wayne eventually broke the record, because we knew Gordie was going to go home. We loved it. We really did."

There were a hundred stories told in Saskatoon that made you laugh, cry or both.

Listening to Mark and Marty Howe talk about playing with their father was to bear witness to something extraordinary even these years later.

The brothers joked about how they were wooed by the World Hockey Association and the Houston Aeros, and how Gordie, then retired from the NHL, suggested it might be good if there was a third Howe on the team. That's when the boys' small contracts got put away and the big-boy contract came out, the boys joked.

At that first training camp, Mark recalled how after the first day or so, his dad was an unhealthy shade of purple from exertion, and he feared it was going to be too much for him. A week later, Mark, one of the finest skaters in the game, couldn't catch up to his father.

Mark played on the left wing with his father at center, and during that first season, every time Mark went into the corner, he said he could count on being flattened by an opposing player who'd been sent into the boards by his dad.

"I had pretty good legs, and I would get in there first, and I'd be battling for the puck," Mark recalled. "Maybe two seconds later -- whoa, someone knocked the wind out of me. I kept turning around, and every time, it was Dad hitting the guy who hit me. It's pretty hard to speak up to your father, and it's hard to speak up to your father when he's Gordie Howe on the ice, too. So it took me about two, three weeks, and I finally went over. I said, 'Dad, I can take a hit from just about anybody, but you're killing me. Just wait two or three more seconds, let me get out of there and then come and do your dirty work.'

"To me, that year was the most amazing thing that I've ever seen an athlete -- I'm talking any sport in the world -- if anybody had a chance to watch him every day, he was absolutely phenomenal. I'm an 18-year-old kid. Just to be there and be a part of it and watch it in practice every day and watch all the things he did, it was really something special."

Dennis Hull told the story of his first encounter with Gordie Howe, when he was a young member of the Chicago Blackhawks at the old Olympia in Detroit. He wasn't seeing much ice time, but he was so enthralled with Howe that he reached out and touched him with his gloves when Howe skated by. He did this once, twice, three times.

Then, in the third period, legendary coach Billy Reay tapped Hull on the shoulder.

Go out and watch Howe, the coach said.

"I said, 'I can see him fine from here,'" Hull said.

On the ice, Hull actually thought he might get a shot at a goal.

Soon, he realized his skates weren't touching the ice. Howe had grabbed the back of Hull's pants and with one hand had lifted him off the ice.

"He said, 'Where do you think you're going?' I said, 'Anywhere you want, sir,'" Hull said.

True story? Well, Hull is a highly sought-after public speaker, so who knows.

What is true is the moment that passed between the two Friday night, sitting together, the Stanley Cup at their knees.

What does it mean, Hull was asked.

"It means everything. Gordie Howe was my hero when I was growing up," he said.

Gretzky recalled his first time playing against Howe was in 1978, when he was with Indianapolis of the World Hockey Association.

"He blinked an awful lot. So in the warm-up, I thought he was winking at me, sort of to tell me good luck. One of the guys said, 'No, no. He blinks a lot.' Sure enough, the first period, I stole the puck from him and I was going the other way, and all of a sudden I got a whack on my thumb. He hit me. Just, whack. He took the puck back, and he said, 'Don't ever take the puck from me.' I said, 'All right, that'll never happen again,'" Gretzky said with a laugh.

Bobby Hull told the story of taking the train from his hometown near Belleville, Ontario, to Toronto to see the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings when he was 9 or 10 years old. The Hulls were in a standing-room only section, and, in the second period, Howe came across the blue line and snapped a shot past the Leafs netminder. Hull's father turned to him and told him that when he could learn to shoot the puck like that, he could play in this league.

After the game, Hull managed to get Howe's autograph, which Howe signed on the ripped top portion of Hull's father's pack of Export A cigarettes.

Bobby Hull, 10 years Howe's junior, recalled going to the penalty box the first time with Howe once Hull became an NHLer. The Red Wings legend opened the penalty box door and motioned for Hull to go first.

What a gentleman, Hull thought.

But when the penalty was over, he knew why Howe had done that.

"Because when the door opened, he went out, and then he slammed the door on me," Hull said. "I knew then that he was all business."

As he told the autograph story Friday night, Bobby Hull stood and reached for Gordie Howe.

"My inspiration," he said, his voice rough with emotion.

And, really, who among the hundreds wasn't thinking the exact same thing.