Hockey Hall of Fame great Gordie Howe, left, receives a playful elbow from a fan while taking part in the Pro AM for Alzheimer's charity event fundraiser in Toronto on Thursday, May 5, 2011. Gordie Howe's wife Colleen died in 2009 from Pick's disease, a form of dementia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
TORONTO - Dozens of former NHL players rubbed elbows with Mr. Hockey on Thursday. And unlike years gone by, they smiled about it.
Fellow Original Six-era players Johnny Bower and Bobby Baun joined Gordie Howe at a luncheon event ahead of the Scotiabank Pro-Am charity hockey tournament. So did more recent NHL alumni like Wendel Clark, Dino Ciccarelli and Georges Laraque.
The Toronto Board of Trade function served as an homage to Howe, who was all smiles as he chatted with old friends and signed autographs.
The 83-year-old Howe, looking sharp in a crisp blue suit, quietly worked the room like a politician as he shook hands and handled the constant requests for photographs.
The hockey legend enjoyed some laughs and hammed it up by raising his famous elbows on occasion while fans and players alike snapped pictures.
Howe wasn't made available for media interviews ahead of the charity tournament, which raises funds to benefit the Gordie&Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer's research and care. More than 50 former NHL players will be joined by Canadian women's players at the fundraiser Friday and Saturday at York University.
Everyone who greeted Howe seemed to have a story for the six-time Hart Trophy winner. He patiently listened to them all and was happy to oblige when asked to sign everything from hockey cards to yearbooks.
Howe was not only one of the league's top scorers, he was also considered one of the toughest players on the ice. Quick with an elbow and not afraid to drop the gloves, he was respected for his well-rounded game.
So it was fitting that the long list of players involved in the charity event includes elite players and tough guys alike. In addition to Hall of Famers like Ciccarelli and Paul Coffey, grittier players like Chris Nilan, Rob Ray and Dave Schultz are involved.
Laraque, one of the league's top enforcers in his day, said Howe excelled in an era when players didn't get the protection they get now.
"Gordie was the ultimate," Laraque said. "He could put the puck in the net and everyone was scared of him too."
Howe has the battle wounds to prove it. Before the luncheon, Howe, Bower and Baun all extended their hands, pointing to some of the scars and swapping stories about yesteryear.
Howe, a four-time Stanley Cup winner, broke in with Detroit in 1946 and spent almost his entire NHL career with the Red Wings. Laraque said Howe was the master of creating his own space on the ice.
"Today in the NHL you've got to hire a guy like me when you have a Crosby on your team or an Ovechkin, guys like that, so then you don't have to worry about it," Laraque said. "With Gordie Howe, you didn't have to do that."
The charity tournament is in its sixth year in Toronto and has raised more than $13 million to date. Proceeds will help fund research in Alzheimer's and related disorders at Baycrest, a world-renowned academic health sciences centre in Toronto.
The Gordie&Colleen Howe Fund is named in tribute to Gordie and in memory of his wife Colleen, who died in March 2009 from Pick's disease, a form of dementia. Half a million Canadians have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada's website.
Howe, a 12-time first-team all-star, is the only man to play in the NHL in five different decades. He played the most seasons in the league at 26 and ranks second all-time in goals (801) and third all-time in points (1,850).
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