Gordie Howe — a Hockey Hall of Famer with 801 goals and 1,049 assists in the NHL — proved he can still draw a crowd on Friday night.
Former NHL stars and fans young and old alike paid tribute in advance of Howe's actual 85th birthday on March 31 in a celebration before the Vancouver Giants 5-4 overtime victory against the Lethbridge Hurricanes in Western Hockey League action.
The former NHLers included icon Bobby Hull and his brother Dennis, Marcel Dionne, Orland Kurtenbach, Charlie Hodge and Johnny Bower, who is also in his mid-80s. They participated in a brief pre-game ceremony during which Howe's birthday cake, bearing his famous No. 9, on the back of a gold-coloured truck, rolled onto the ice.
The cake mirrored the special jerseys, all with No. 9 and Gordie Howe on the front, that Giants players wore for the occasion.
Pop star Michael Buble, also a Giants minority owner, got in on the party by leading the crowd of 8,284 in singing "Happy Birthday" to Howe, who will turn 85 on March 31. Howe sang along before he capped the festivities by dropping the puck during the ceremonial face-off.
Howe and the former stars posed for pictures with hundreds of fans, including Smythe, during the first intermission.
While the old pros had a good time, some aspiring ones did, too.
The Giants, who have long since been eliminated from the playoffs, contributed to the occasion by downing the Hurricanes 5-4 on Carter Popoff's second goal of the game at 1:06 of overtime. The Hurricanes, in a battle for the playoffs, have also been struggling.
The contest even included a penalty shot. Vancouver's Alec Baer, 15, playing his first WHL game after leaving a Minnesota high school squad, missed the net with two and a half minutes left in the third period, setting the stage for the overtime heroics.
Popoff's overtime goal gave the Giants a three-game winning streak for the first time this season. Giants coach Don Hay, who has dealt with one of the most difficult seasons in a standout career, said Howe inspired his players — as usual.
"It always nice to have Gordie here," said Hay. "It's pretty special to have not only Gordie, but those other hockey legends in the building."
Howe, who has been dealing with cognitive impairment in recent years, never said a word publicly, but nobody seemed to mind.
"It was a heck of a game to watch," said Hay. "The kids played hard, the fans were entertained — and everybody went home happy."
Elsewhere in the WHL, it was: Regina 3, Moose Jaw 2 (OT); Saskatoon 4, Brandon 1; Swift Current 3, Calgary 1; Red Deer 4, Kootenay 1; Kamloops 4, Prince George 1; Seattle 3, Tri-City 1; Spokane 4, Victoria 3 (OT) and Edmonton 7, Everett 1.
Pats 3 Warriors 2 (OT)
At Regina, Trent Ouellette scored with 16 seconds remaining in extra time and Matt Hewitt turned away 41-of-43 shots as the Pats (22-35-7) beat Moose Jaw (21-33-10) for their first win in three contests.
Blades 4 Wheat Kings 1
Broncos 3 Hitmen 1
At Calgary, Eetu Laurikainen stopped 36-of-37 shots and Adam Lowry scored his team-leading 41st goal of the season as Swift Current (31-27-7) picked up its third win in a row by defeating the Hitmen (40-19-5).
Rebels 4 Ice 1
At Cranbrook, B.C., Cory Millette scored twice while Rhyse Dieno and Brooks Maxwell had a goal and assist each as Red Deer (35-24-6) snapped Kootenay's (32-30-2) five-game win streak.
Blazers 4 Cougars 1
At Prince George, B.C., Colin Smith scored twice and set up one more and Cole Cheveldave made 26 saves as Kamloops (42-18-5) handed the Cougars (18-37-8) their fourth loss in a row.
Thunderbirds 3 Americans 1
At Kennewick, Wash., Brandon Glover stopped 29 shots as Seattle (21-38-5) ended Tri-City's (37-22-3) six-game win streak on a night it honoured its captain Justin Feser, who set the new WHL iron-man record at 312 games.
Chiefs 4 Royals 3 (OT)
At Victoria, B.C., Mike Aviani scored at 3:38 of overtime and Brenden Kichton chipped in with three assists as Spokane (38-24-2) defeated the Royals (32-25-6), who are now winless in eight games.
Oil Kings 7 Silvertips 1
At Everett, Wash., eight players recorded a multi-point game for Edmonton including Michael St. Croix, who led the way with four assists, as the Oil Kings (46-15-5) crushed the Silvertips (22-37-5) for their third win in a row.