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Thanks to a recent stem-cell treatment, Gordie Howe was in Saskatoon Friday for the Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner.

Liam Richards/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The photo, taken in 1972, shows Gordie Howe – seated, wearing a suit and tie – playfully wrapping a hockey stick around the neck of 11-year-old Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky, by then, was already creating a sensation, a childhood prodigy making news for his exploits as a small, almost frail-looking boy. Howe was just the opposite.

In his prime, Mr. Hockey was the epitome of a multifaceted player. He could score and he could hit. One of the great unofficial stats in the game is named after him, the Gordie Howe hat trick – when a player scores a goal, an assist and gets into a fight in the same game.

Over time, their paths crossed frequently. Considered by most (alongside Bobby Orr) as the greatest players of all time, they played against each other in the World Hockey Association and then together in an NHL all-star game in 1979, during Gretzky's first NHL season. In 1989, Howe was on the red carpet, honouring Gretzky, after the Great One moved past him to become the NHL's career scoring leader. Howe played six decades as a pro, the last for the IHL Detroit Vipers, when he was a sprightly 69-year-old.

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Longevity was the measure of his career – longevity and the ability to fight, which has been put to the test in recent months. Twice in 2014, Howe suffered debilitating strokes and in November, his family thought he was near death.

Instead, he travelled to Mexico from Texas to undergo experimental stem-cell treatment, and his health took a sharp turn for the better – good enough to honour a commitment he made the previous year to turn up in Saskatoon Friday night for the Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner.

Bobby Hull was there. too, and his son Brett, plus all three Howe boys – Murray, Marty and Mark, and of course, Gretzky, who came to support a lifetime friend.

Howe arrived in Saskatoon on Thursday evening after a physically challenging and much-delayed flight. Looking frail, he nevertheless walked off the airplane on his own, then onto the tarmac and into the terminal. On Friday morning, as his father recovered from a bad travel day, Mark Howe noted how unexpected this turn of events was.

"For Dad to be able to walk again, feeble though it might be, and for him to actually be here, is quite incredible," Mark Howe said.

"He's a proud man and I just hope he can take in and grasp some of the honour and accolades he's receiving today, because I know it means a lot to him."

Gretzky, who flew into Saskatoon accompanied by his sons, spoke of the impact the senior Howe and Hull had on his generation of players.

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"I was no different than any 10-year-old," Gretzky said. "I wrote letters to NHL players. I wrote to Bobby and to Gordie and they both sent me back signed pictures that I still have today. For me, as a child growing up and idolizing these guys and then getting an opportunity to meet them and develop a relationship over the years has been special and unique. If it wasn't for Gordie and for Bobby Hull jumping to the WHA in 1972, I might not be standing here today. They definitely laid a path for guys like Wayne Gretzky to become professional athletes. Not only were they great players, but wonderful people too.

"My only complaint about Mr. Hockey was yesterday. I said to my boys as we got on the airplane, 'It's 27 Celsius and sunny in L.A. Why couldn't Mr. Hockey have been born in Mexico?'"

But it was in Mexico where the stem-cell treatment got him back on his feet again.

"His whole right side was paralyzed," Marty Howe explained. "Just getting him to San Diego in two flights was quite a chore.

"The next morning, we crossed the border into Tijuana and he had his stem-cell therapy. The first therapy is an injection into the spinal fluid, which was for his motor skills; and it worked.

"It's more of a miracle than anything else. He went from not being able to move his arms and not being able to walk to being able to stand up within nine hours.

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"He's put back on 21 pounds. His back is bothering him a little now, so he's shuffling a bit, but when he gets here tonight, I guarantee he's going to walk to wherever he has to go. And it's a great thing."

Howe's brother Vic passed away earlier this week. Because Gordie suffers from dementia, his memory of that event comes and goes, Marty Howe said.

"I wish he was firing on all cylinders. He's not. The fact that we got him here and he's able to attend this thing is a huge deal for us and the Howe family and for Gordie," Marty said.

As for that famous long-ago photo, shot at the Holiday Inn by a photographer from the Brantford Expositor, Gretzky remembered that his mother took him shopping the day before he met Howe for the first time because he didn't own a suit.

"A lot of times, when you meet your idols, athletes are no different than anyone else. Sometimes they have bad days," Gretzky said. "Kids walk away saying, 'It wasn't as great as I thought it would be.' For me, every time I look at the picture, I always think the same thoughts. He was nicer and better and bigger when I met him than even what I thought he was going to be. Every time I look at the picture or sign the picture, it's nothing but great memories."

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