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Former NHL stars honoured to help Mr. Hockey celebrate his 85th birthday

VANCOUVER – Gordie Howe wasn’t around, but he still brought out the kid again in Bobby Hull.

The Golden Jet was among former NHL stars who came out to fete Howe at a Thursday news conference in advance of his 85th birthday celebration at Friday night’s WHL game between the Vancouver Giants and the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

Howe missed the session because his flight was delayed, but his absence did not stop Hull, his brother Dennis, Marcel Dionne and Pat Quinn from reminiscing about the hockey great.

The Hulls, Dionne, Quinn and former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower will be on hand for the birthday bash at the Pacific Coliseum.

Bobby Hull, 74, recalled seeing Howe for the first time as a 10-year-old when his mother and father took him from their rural Ontario home to see Howe’s Detroit Red Wings take on the Toronto Maple Leafs. At his father’s urging, the young Hull raced into Maple Leaf Gardens to grab rush seats.

“I was the first one up those steps into the Gardens, and the ice was so pristine,” recalled Hull, who would go on to play with the Chicago Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers. “The blue-lines were so blue, and the red-lines were so red, and I stood there with my arms stretched out to save a spot for my mother and father.

“We were right at the blue-line that the Toronto Maple Leafs defended twice, and Al Rollins was in goal. I remember, in the first period, Howe came down and just stepped over the blue-line, and snapped those big wrists of his, and Al Rollins pulled the puck out from behind him.

“And, my dad looked down at me and said, ‘Robert, when you can shovel-shoot the puck like that, you can play in this league.

“It was only 10 shorts years later that I’m playing (for Chicago) with a teammate of his, Ted Lindsay, who had come from Detroit and was playing against Howe and Detroit — and they were the greatest times of my life.”

The Giants will honour Howe, a minority owner of the club, who does not turn 85 until March 31, prior to the game against Lethbridge. The former NHLers are looking forward to the event like starry-eyed youngsters.

“Why would anyone that’s a hockey player not want to come to Gordie Howe’s 85th birthday? … I’m honoured to be here,” said Dennis Hull, who played for Chicago and Detroit.

Among his many achievements, Howe won four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, six Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player and six Art Ross Trophies as the league’s leading scorer. In addition to the Red Wings, he played for Houston and Hartford of the World Hockey Association before concluding his career back in the NHL with the New England Whalers in 1980.

Howe is the only player to compete in the NHL in five decades, from the 1940s to the 1980s, and witnessed the introduction of such then-novelties as curved sticks and painted goalie masks after most netminders went without any facial protection.

He played in the NHL all-star game 23 times and was named to the first all-star team on 12 occasions en route to producing 801 goals and 1,049 assists in 1,767 regular-season contests and another 160 points in 157 playoff games.

Howe also had 508 points in 419 WHA regular-season games and 71 points in 78 post-season games while playing on two Avco Cup-winning teams. At the age of 69, he played one shift with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League, becoming the first player to suit up for a pro team in six different decades.

Dennis Hull recalled that he played his first game against Howe, who was his “hockey hero” as a youngster.

Dionne remembered first meeting Howe as a rookie with Detroit. Howe, who attended the news conference to announce Dionne’s signing with the Red Wings, joked with Dionne over an apparent lack of size that did not deter him from becoming a standout.

Dionne said Mr. Hockey has inspired aging former NHLers with the way he has dealt with his wife Colleen’s death from Pick’s disease, an incurable mental illness, and his own issues with cognitive impairment.

“This is a special day (Friday) night — there’s no doubt about that — with people that are gonna come out at the game,” said Dionne. “I’m crazy about these things — and to remember where you were at a certain time.”