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A love affair between hockey greats grows by the day

by John McGourty

Wayne Gretzky played on a line with Gordie and Mark Howe during the 1979 World Hockey Association's All-Star Game.
When Wayne Gretzky, then with the Los Angeles Kings, passed Gordie Howe's NHL scoring record on Oct. 15, 1989, in Edmonton, Howe made sure he was in attendance and congratulated "The Great One" with enthusiasm.

Howe had been hockey's all-time leading scorer since passing Maurice "Rocket" Richard on Jan. 16, 1960. Gretzky was aware that Richard always resented being displaced by Howe, so Gretzky was thrilled to have Howe's support as he approached the scoring record.

The two NHL scoring stars have long formed a mutual admiration society, and if you get them together and ask them who was the greatest hockey player of all time, they'll answer simultaneously, "He is."

"I first recall hearing about Gordie from my father when I was 6 years old," Gretzky, now the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, told "To players of my generation, as well as the players of the generation before - and probably after - Gordie was a hockey icon. He played so hard and was so good for so long that it was simply amazing."
Gretzky and Howe played together on a line with Gordie's son, Mark, three times in 1979 when they both played in the World Hockey Association's 1979 All-Star Game series against Dynamo Moscow.

"My dream was to someday play a game with Gordie and it came true in 1979 at the WHA All-Star Game," Gretzky related in Gretzky: An Autobiography, written with Rick Reilly. "I really didn't expect to play too much, and I felt kind of dumb because the jersey they gave me was about two miles too big. It might have fit (Dave) Semenko, but not me. Gordie saw it and said, 'Come with me.' We went back into the trainer's room and he took a needle and thread and actually sewed it to make it smaller and tighter for me. I still have that sweater at home, with Gordie's stitch work in it.

"Then the coach for that game (Jacques Demers) came up and told me, 'You're going to center Gordie and Mark (Gordie's son).' As we sat there on the bench, I said to Gordie, 'Boy, I'm really nervous about this game.' He kind of yawned, stretched and said, 'Yeah, so am I.' That cracked me up and calmed me down. Then he said, 'Look, when they drop the puck (at the opening faceoff), get it back to the defenseman. He'll give it back to you, then you dump it into my corner and get in front of the net.' So, that's exactly what I did and we scored in about 10 seconds. If I had played with Gordie Howe my whole life I'd have 3,000 points."

Gretzky retired with 2,857 points on 894 goals and 1,963 assists.

Gretzky saw during that all-star series against Dynamo that Howe remained among the toughest players around.

"That same year, after the regular season, we played together again in the WHA All-Star Game series against the Moscow Dynamo. There was this one Soviet who wouldn't stop hooking and chopping at me. I didn't know what to do about it, so Gordie said, 'The next time down the ice, when you see him coming, flush him off to the right and get the hell out of the way.' So that's what I did and when I looked back, the Soviet was laying flat on his butt, half out of it.

"Whatever Gordie did, I'm glad I didn't have to watch it."

Gordie Howe was 51 years old. Mark Howe was 23 and Gretzky was 18 in the games against Dynamo. They played very well together, Gretzky scored twice, including the opening goal, in the first game. Then, Gordie and Gretzky set up Mark for the Game 1 game-winner. Gretzky and Mark Howe scored in Game 2.

But that All-Star Game was hardly the first time Gordie Howe and Gretzky had met. There's a famous picture of them. The older Howe is sitting, Gretzky is standing, and the impish Howe has his stick hooked against the kid's throat.

Gordie Howe displaced Maurice "Rocket" Richard as the all-time leading scorer on Jan. 16, 1960.
"When I met him the first time I was 11 years old," Gretzky wrote. "Gordie was giving me an award at a Kiwanis banquet. Beforehand, he told me something I never forgot: 'Kid, keep practicing that backhand. Someday, it's going to be an important shot.'

"Gordie bailed me out of a serious jam that day. I told everybody beforehand that I couldn't get up there to speak, no way. Naturally, the M.C. introduced me like I was going to speak. I was starting to cry when Gordie whispered in my ear, 'Go up there and say I'm sorry, but I'm lost without a pair of skates and walk off.' So I went up there and ... totally forgot what I was supposed to say. So Gordie came up to the microphone and said, 'When someone has done what this kid has done, he doesn't have to say anything.'

"The first time I met him I was in sheer awe. He was so big and iconic to me, that I really couldn't believe it was happening. I tried to emulate Gordie by wearing No. 9 when I was very young."

"Wayne asked me about shooting that day," Howe recalled recently. "I told him my beliefs and showed him a few things. How could I say no? When I was a kid, Harry Watson was playing in the NHL but he would take time with me. We'd practice shooting under a street lamp in Saskatoon. When you think about the help you got when you were trying to make it, how can you say no to a youngster?"

A couple of years later, Gretzky played a year with Howe's youngest son, Murray.

"I went to play Midgets in Toronto when I was 16, the Junior B Seneca Nationals" Murray Howe said. "Wayne and I got a lot of publicity because he was 'The Great One' and I was Gordie Howe's son. Wayne was the real story. He was the best and I was the worst, by far. He had that gift even then and he is such a big fan of my dad. Wayne was always asking questions about my dad: What does he eat, what does he watch on TV?

"Wayne loved hearing anything about my dad or my family. My dad is still his hero and I was in awe of Wayne so it made for an interesting interaction. It was a great honor to play that year with Wayne, he had such amazing goal-scoring ability and he's a great guy, very down-to-earth. He's a lot like my dad in that he didn't read his press clippings. He just did his job so that he was able to play a sport that he loved."

From a distance, Gretzky dreamed of emulating Howe. Up close, he found himself embraced. Gretzky might have been surprised that Howe recalled that Kiwanis Club meeting, but Howe had a similar experience when he was a teenager. He was invited to play in an exhibition All-Star Game when he was 14 and scored against Toronto Maple Leafs great Turk Broda, who told him if kept playing like that, he'd be an NHL player.

Howe scored on Broda in his very first NHL game and was stunned to hear Broda say, "I told you you'd make it up here."

"I've always felt Gordie and I have been linked in some way by fate," Gretzky wrote. "The day I won my first Hart Trophy is the exact same day Gordie retired. By the end of that first season with the Kings, I was 13 points behind Gordie's all-time points record of 1,850. But, to be honest, I had mixed feelings about that record. It was the one record I wasn't sure I wanted to break. He's the best player ever and a part of me felt he should be remembered as having the most points ever."
A story went around the WHA while Gretzky was playing for the Cincinnati Stingers. It reinforced Howe's greatness in Gretzky's mind and taught him a lesson in how to be a star and a good teammate at the same time.

"It's like the time Gordie was playing in the WHA. He was in his 40s then, a legend, and he went up to the coach and said, 'Did you run a bed check last night?' The coach said yes. 'Well, why didn't you check my room? I'm part of this team, too.' That's the kind of thing I admire."

Howe had instant recognition throughout North America while Gretzky was just beginning to get greater media attention when they received an invitation to meet President Ronald Reagan. In a twist on an old line, they went to the White House and a hockey conversation broke out.

"I've had lunch with the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States," Gretzky said.  "I got to the White House when I was 22 and we were at one of the All-Star Games in Washington. President Reagan had done films about sports in the 1940s, and seemed interested in hockey so Gordie, who was there too, just chatted like they'd known each other forever. Me, I was petrified. I just shut up and tried to watch Gordie. Every time he picked up a fork, I picked up the same one."

Howe was legendary for making sure every fan who wanted an autograph got one and Gretzky saw that Howe regarded it as both an obligation and a chance to meet fans. Both were known for light-hearted chatter with fans while they signed their names on cards, hockey sweaters and myriad other surfaces.

"I get between 2,000-5,000 fan letters a month and we answer them all," Gretzky wrote. "Being famous runs me about $25,000 a year in stamps, colored photos and a secretary to answer it all. But there's no way I could ignore the requests, especially since my childhood heroes like Gordie gave me every autographed picture I asked for. I still have them, too."

Howe is an unrelenting teaser, but he also invites teasing. He let himself be the butt of a joke at the reception after Gretzky married actress Janet Jones.

Best man Eddie Mio said that when Gretzky got to Edmonton he knew a lot of girls would be after him so he had 30 keys made for his apartment and eventually gave them all out. He'd like them back now, Mio said. One by one, supposed ex-girlfriends walked up and deposited keys in the basket. The whole thing was hilarious, with people like Paul Coffey's mom and agent Mike Barnett's seven-month pregnant wife "returning" keys. Finally, Mio said there was one more missing, who had it? At that point, a sheepish Gordie Howe walked up and deposited the last key.

"They had a nice celebration for me in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago and I got a big hug from Wayne's dad, Walter," Howe said this week. "He's a great guy.

I really like Walter a lot. He gave me something else too: A Samsung LCD TV!"

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