VANCOUVER – Joan Smythe came to the Pacific Coliseum for one purpose Friday night.
“To see Gordie Howe and, possibly, meet him — and I did,” said Smythe.
The 84-year-old Delta, B.C., resident was among thousands of fans who flocked to see Mr. Hockey as the Vancouver Giants, of which he is a minority owner, celebrated his 85th birthday before taking on the Lethbridge Hurricanes in a Western Hockey League game.
Smythe, whose husband was a cousin of legendary Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe, said she waited many years to finally meet, and get a photo of Howe.
“I watched a lot of hockey in my youth,” she said. “Actually, I listened to (games) on the radio (in an era before TV was available). I didn’t actually watch them.”
Howe — a Hockey Hall of Famer with 801 goals and 1,049 assists in the NHL — proved he can still draw a crowd.
Former NHL stars and fans young and old alike paid tribute in advance of his actual 85th birthday on March 31.
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.
Fans continued to line up for the chance to get pictures of Mr. Hockey as the game continued into the second period. While other icons like Bower and Kurtenbach headed back to their box seats, Howe kept hamming it up for his faithful followers.
“It’s a wonderful celebration for Gordie,” said Kurtenbach. “It’s well deserving. Whether it’s in Vancouver or across the country, he’s been nothing but a superb athlete …”
Kurtenbach, 76, a former Vancouver Canucks captain and coach who also played for the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers, in two separate stints, said he cherished the chance to reminisce with Howe, the Hulls and Bower.
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.”
Notes: Taylor Vickerman, Dalton Sward, and Riley Kieser also scored for the Giants, who outshot the Hurricanes 36-24. Russell Maxwell paced Lethbridge with two goals while Graham Hood, and Sam Mckechnie supplied single markers for the Canes. Mckechnie’s goal tied it 4-4 in the third. Giants goaltender Payton Lee, 16, picked up his 11th win of the season.