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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan – Wayne Gretzky figures there is no photograph fans ask him to sign more often than the one of him as a smiling preteen beside his Gordie Howe, who is playfully hooking a hockey stick around youngster's neck.
"Every time I look at the picture or sign the picture, it's nothing but great memories," Gretzky said Friday as he and several hockey great paid tribute to Howe in his hometown. "He was nicer and better ... when I met him than even what I thought he was going to be."
The photo was taken in 1972 in Gretzky's hometown of Brantford, Ontario. Gretzky savors every detail.
"We were standing there, Gordon grabbed his stick, actually put it around my throat," Gretzky recalled. "It went on to be one of the most popular pictures I've ever signed."
Gretzky, Bobby Hull, Brett Hull and Howe's sons Mark and Marty shared their memories at a news conference Friday leading to a celebrity dinner in honor of Mr. Hockey.
The 86-year-old Howe was expected to attend the dinner despite two disabling strokes late last year. His family says his health has improved after stem-cell treatment as part of a clinical trial in Mexico.
"He hadn't walked in two months," Marty Howe said, adding his father gained 21 pounds since the experimental treatment.
"His back is bothering him a little bit now, so he shuffles his feet," he said. "But I guarantee when he gets to that thing tonight he's going to walk to where he needs to go. His blood flows hockey."
Gretzky said Howe helped pave the way for him and others. He said idols sometimes don't live up to their reputations, but this wasn't the case with Howe.
"You're always going to remember him as a great player, a wonderful person and a tremendous family man," Gretzky said.
Howe's 801 career goals rank second in the NHL to Gretzky's 894. Howe also holds NHL records for games (1,767) and seasons (26). He won the Stanley Cup four times with the Detroit Red Wings.
Brett Hull said when he played in Detroit, he often chatted with Howe about hockey, sports and life in the locker room before games, conversations he'll treasure. He said it's hard to imagine playing for as long as Howe did.
"Being productive at that age is a remarkable feat and it's hard to fathom that he could really do it," Hull said.
Bobby Hull is thrilled to be part of the Howe tribute.
"I go back to when I was 10 years old," he said, adding that he stood in the sleet and rain to watch a game at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens.
He was in awe watching Howe play.
"My dad looked at me and said 'Robert, when you can shoot the puck like that you can play in this league,'" he said.
Hull said eight years later he played against Howe, and it was a "wonder" to share the ice with him.
Howe's sons both talked about the family values their father holds dear.
"He's just a special person," Marty Howe said. "He treats everyone the same."
Gretzky said Friday's dinner is a chance to thank Howe for what he has done for hockey.
"I don't think there's any question that if it wasn't for Gordie, and if it wasn't for Bobby Hull jumping to the WHA in 1972 that I might not be standing here today," Gretzky said. "So they definitely laid a path for guys like Wayne Gretzky to become professional athletes."