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 idol Gordie Howe, who is playfully hooking a hockey stick around the future Great One'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 legends 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 iconic photo was taken in 1972 in Gretzky's hometown of Brantford, Ont. Gretzky remembers it like it was yesterday.

"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 of Howe at a news conference Friday morning ahead of an evening celebrity dinner in honour of Mr. Hockey.

Gretzky said Howe helped pave the way for him and others to enjoy success in the sport. 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 of the ailing Howe, who has suffered recent strokes.

Howe arrives for tribute dinner

Howe, 86, was all smiles on Friday as he made his way to the dinner in his honour. Wearing a suit and tie, he shuffled through a hotel lobby, pausing briefly with a fan who shook his hand and captured the moment with a selfie.

Howe's 801 career goals rank second in the NHL to Gretzky's 894. The Hall of Famer also holds NHL records for most games played (1,767) and seasons played (26) and 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 dressing room before games, conversations that 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.

Howe suffered two disabling strokes late last year but his family says his health has improved after he underwent a stem-cell treatment as part of a clinical trial in Mexico.

"He hadn't walked in two months," Marty Howe said, adding that his dad has also gained 21 pounds since the experimental treatment.

"His back is bothering him a little bit now, so he shuffles his feet but I guarantee when he gets to that (dinner) he's going to walk to where he needs to go. His blood flows hockey."

Bobby Hull said he's 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."