SUN Hockey Pool

Mr. Hockey and friends

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Age has never proven to be effective kryptonite against hockey's Superman.

Who knew it would be a patch of ice -- the very surface on which Gordie Howe famously chased a puck for five decades -- that would finally trip up Mr. Hockey?

As traffic crawled around the London region and bus cancellations forced folks to stay put -- including, unfortunately, a large group of Thames Valley Children's Centre clients hoping to meet the stars at the 51st London Sports Celebrity Dinner and Auction -- Howe hopped out of a vehicle and went down as if Rocket Richard had checked him from behind 50 years ago.

"I was smart -- I got my elbow straightened for the impact," the Detroit Red Wings legend said with a grin.

After all these years, it's still all about his elbows. The famous joint that delivered so many devastating blows to NHLers' chins wasn't sore enough to stop signing autographs for a legion of fans at the London Convention Centre, which included some kids who weren't even born the last time Howe laced up to play professionally -- and that was eight years ago at age 70.

"These kids come to see him because he's an icon, although the kind of humble person he is, he would never even know what that word is," Thames Valley chairperson John LaPorta said.

"I know this story," LaPorta said. "A girl started playing hockey and asked her father what number she should be and he said, 'No. 9, of course.' She comes here and sees Gordie Howe and can actually see the reason why she's wearing that number."

Two weeks ago at the retirement of Steve Yzerman's No. 19 jersey in Detroit, Howe received a roar that threatened to blow the roof off Joe Louis Arena. Yzerman shields himself from much of the cameras and limelight -- a quality Howe knows well, but has conquered.

"He's bashful," Howe said. "I know. When I first came up, I was embarrassed when somebody asked for my autograph. Now, today's players can sneak out the back door of the arena and no one will ever see them, but we couldn't do that. We had to walk through the crowds. Sid Abel told me if someone asked for my autograph, that meant they thought enough of me to care and that I better do right by them.

"I never liked signing autographs; so messy you can't read them sometimes. I really watched someone do a 'G' and an 'H' perfectly one time and tried to copy that."

Montcalm high schooler Ivan Tran, a SPECTRA nominee, stood patiently in line waiting for Howe to sign one of his hockey sticks. The teenager never saw Howe play, but he saw Wayne Gretzky and knew the Red Wing was the Great One's idol growing up.

"He's a legend -- I never saw him play, but you go on the Internet and read the bios of him and see the stories of what he was able to do," Tran said.

When the folks weren't drawn to Howe, the belts belonging to Sarnia boxer Steve Molitor -- the reigning International Boxing Federation super-bantamweight world champ -- and light-weight mixed martial arts champion Sam Stout of London were like magnets attracting a crowd. "It's a source of pride to have one of these and to be born and bred in Canada," Molitor said.

You need confidence to be a world champion fighter and you have to inspire confidence in your quarterback to become a successful CFL receiver, as Saskatchewan Roughriders ball-catcher Andy Fantuz did in his rookie season.

"The quarterback has a lot . . . riding on him and he comes in with a set of guys he believes in," the Chatham native and former Western Mustangs said. "All I did every day in practice and the games was to try to prove to (pivot Kerry Joseph) that he could count on me."

And there were definite benefits to playing among the passionate fans of pigskin-crazy Regina.

"We won the first playoff game (over Calgary) and when we got back, there was a band and a crowd of people waiting for us at the airport," he said. "That was cool."


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