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Gordie Howe

Gretzky: Howe was 'greatest player ever'

'Great One' describes influence 'Mr. Hockey' had on his life, career

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

DETROIT -- Wayne Gretzky was 17, a wet-behind-the-ears rookie professional with the 1978-79 Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. And he was impressed by the friendly nature of New England Whalers forward Gordie Howe, a man he'd idolized for years, during a pregame warm-up.

"Gordie was 49 or 50 the first time I played against him," Gretzky said Tuesday, speaking with a small group of reporters an hour into the public visitation for Howe at Joe Louis Arena. "I thought it was pretty cool, skating around the warm-up, that he kept winking at me.

"Third or fourth shift in the game, I took the puck from him and before I knew it this big stick was pounding me on the hand. I thought I'd broken my thumb. He took the puck and said, 'Don't ever take the puck from me,' and I said, 'OK.'

"I said to Gary Smith, our goalie, after the first period, 'I don't understand, Gordie was winking at me the whole warm-up.' Gary said, 'Winking? He's got a blinking problem.'

"Well, nobody told me that," Gretzky said, laughing by now. "I thought he was kind of cheering me on."

Video: Gretzky reminisces about Howe at public visitation

The Great One was equal parts emotional, introspective, sorrowful, nostalgic and uplifted when he related one Howe story after another Tuesday, fans streaming by him like a river as they exited the arena floor, having paid their respects to the iconic Detroit Red Wings star who died Friday at age 88.

A veteran hockey legend and his adoring fan had met for the first time in 1972 when Howe visited the 10-year-old Gretzky's hometown of Brantford, Ontario. Wearing his first suit, bought for him by his mother for the occasion, young Wayne, a hockey phenom, famously was hooked around the neck by Howe with a stick; Gretzky said the photo is among the most famous and popular of him ever taken.

Gretzky had been a Howe fan for a few years by then, saying he probably saw "Mr. Hockey" on TV when he was 5 or 6, "and he probably scored a hat trick and I thought, 'I like this guy.'

"I was 7 or 8 years old and I'd go to the barber shop … and I'd say, 'I want a Gordie Howe haircut,'" Gretzky said. "I was enamored by him at a young age."

At age 15, Gretzky got to know his idol a little better. He was playing Junior B in Toronto and Howe would come up to see his son, Murray, who was one of Gretzky's teammates.

"That's where I really got to know Gordie," he said. "And then I turned pro."

And almost lost a thumb.

Video: Wayne Gretzky on the legacy of Gordie Howe

"A lot of times you meet your idol and you go, 'That was OK,'" Gretzky said. "Everybody has bad days, right? But when I met Gordie he was bigger and better and nicer, everything and more than I imagined him to be. He just had a way about him. Whether he was talking to my father, one of the waitresses at a dinner or the Prime Minister, he had a way of being able to talk to anybody and put everybody at ease."

More than once Gretzky heard that it's odd he would idolize a player whose style was so different than his own.

"Gordie was strong and big and physically a big man," he said. "I was the complete opposite. But we had one thing in common. When I was 10 he said, 'Make sure you work on your backhand.' I always had a great pride in scoring a lot of goals on my backhand. We shared a strong, solid backhand."

As Gretzky grew to his greatness, Howe nearing the end of his career and then into retirement, he would take Gretzky under his wing or gently give advice.

"When I turned pro at 17, the WHA asked me to go to New York with Gordie and Bobby Hull. I don't know why, no one in New York knew who I was. It was tremendous trip for me. Gordie and Bobby took me to breakfast, we went to dinner, Muhammad Ali came over in the hotel lobby to say hello to them. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is cool.'

"But he told me at 17, and it's one thing I'll always remember: 'You worked hard to get to the professional level and now you have to work even that much harder.' A lot of guys who turn pro forget about that. That's one thing he told me that always stuck in my brain."

On Friday, learning of the passing of his former teammate, Red Wings legend Ted Lindsay recalled that Howe had a fear, year after year at training, that he wasn't good enough to make the team.

"Two things separated Gordie from everyday players," Gretzky said about that. "One, Gordie never thought he was bigger or better than anybody else. He always wanted to prove that he was. He never said to anybody, 'I'm the best player, I'm the No. 1 guy.'

"And he always had a need to perform each and every game and practice. That's what separated Gordie Howe from the rest and that's why he was Gordie Howe. He had a definite ambition that he was going to be the best player every night and every year. That's how he lived. He never changed."

Gretzky said he was a little uncomfortable in 1989 to be on the cusp of passing Howe's NHL record of 1,850 points. He spoke Tuesday of different eras, more teams, an NHL that might not have been as strong as the one where Howe had played.

"Gordie and my dad talked about that during a flight together that year," Gretzky said. "In some ways I was embarrassed to be breaking his record. In his era it was hard to get 40 goals; 80 or 90 points was a lot. I played with some great players: [Mark] Messier and [Paul] Coffey and [Jari] Kurri, Hall of Famers, and the coach would say, 'You guys can win 6-5 or 7-6, go to it.' It was a different game.

"Gordie kind of chuckled and my dad said, 'Gordie's what you should be when someone is closing in on your records. He's genuinely happy for you. That's more important than anything.'"

Howe forever will lead Gretzky in at least one category, albeit one that's unofficial: Howe had two Gordie Howe hat tricks in his career, a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. Gretzky laughed when he said he had one.

"I said to my son, 'That's when you know you're a great player, when they name a hat trick after you and you've only had [two],'" Gretzky said. "I asked my son how many he thought Gordie had and he said 60 or 70. I said to Gord one time, 'You fooled everybody.'"

Howe will be remembered, Gretzky said, as the best.

"The greatest player ever," he said. "I say this all the time. Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe, pick who you think is better. I happen to be a little biased. I was a forward, so I'll take Gordie. 

"But more importantly he was the nicest man I ever met. I've been lucky in my lifetime. I got to be part of hosting the Queen [of England], my wife and I got to meet Pope John Paul, I got to light the torch in Vancouver for the [2010] Olympics. All great honors, but when the [Howe] boys asked me to be a pallbearer today, it was pretty special. …

"One year [1952-53], Gordie had 49 goals. He never got 50. He played against Montreal the last game of the season and Canadiens players didn't want him to get 50. They wanted Rocket [Richard] alone to have that record.

"They stopped Gordie that night," Gretzky said. "And it was like they'd won the Stanley Cup."

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