VANCOUVER - Gordie Howe can still draw a crowd.
Thousands of fans lined up outside the doors of the Pacific Coliseum to get a free photo and a glimpse of the NHL legend as the Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants celebrated his upcoming 80th birthday in a pre-game ceremony. An audience of 12,357 showed up as the Giants and Chilliwack Bruins concluded their regular in a game that meant nothing in the standings. It's safe to say that most came to see Howe, who is a minority owner of the Giants.
Former NHLers Bill Gadsby, Marcel Dionne, Pat Quinn, Jean Beliveau and Marty Howe, his eldest son, who played alongside him and brother Mark in the 1970s, participated in a pre-game ceremony. Wayne Gretzky's father Walter was also there.
"It was quite the cast," said former Vancouver Canucks captain Stan Smyl, who viewed the game from the stands and also participated in a dinner for Howe the night before.
As Howe walked onto a piece of red carpet that bore his name and number, he playfully put up his dukes to fight Quinn, also a Giants minority owner, with whom he waged many battles during their playing days.
Gadsby and Dionne wore their old Detroit Red Wings jerseys, while Quinn wore an original Canucks jersey, Walter Gretzky wore the New York Rangers' colours and Marty Howe bore his old Boston Bruins shirt.
Instead of wearing Red Wings colours, Howe sported a Giants jersey bearing No. 9 and Mr. Hockey on the back.
The defending national major junior champion Giants presented Howe with a replica Memorial Cup ring. Gretzky, who rode onto the ice in an old pickup truck with a giant cake on the back, gave him a voucher for a Samsung flat screen TV.
Giants defenceman Jon Blum, a Giants alternate captain, enjoyed a rare chance to take the opening ceremonial face-off as Howe dropped the puck, because Giants coach Don Hay elected to scratch captain Spencer Machacek.
"It was amazing standing up there with all the guys that made hockey and to shake their hands," said Blum, an 19-year-old native of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., who was a 2007 first-round draft choice of the Nashville Predators.
After Howe dropped the puck, the ex-NHLers and Gretzky placed their hands on Blum's stick for a photo that included Chilliwack captain Mark Santorelli.
"I'll never use that one again," said Blum, " It's going to go up in a frame."
Perhaps fittingly, Vancouver's No. 9 Evander Kane emerged as the game's hero. The 16-year-old Vancouver native scored two power play goals, including the winner, as the Giants came back to beat the Bruins 5-3.
"I thought (the ceremony for Howe) really added to the game," said Kane
"Just to see guys like that all guys played in the NHL and had great careers you wanted to perform well in front of them."
Howe's actual birthday is not until March 31, but the Giants wanted to honour him during the regular season.