"He was everything to me," Gretzky told NHL.com in a phone interview. "I was lucky enough in life to have the greatest father ever, and if I could say I had a stepdad it was probably Gordie. I idolized him as a kid and was fortunate enough to become friends with him. There's not too many times you can grow up idolizing somebody that you can say at the end of the day we became really good friends. He was just everything."
Long before breaking his NHL records for goals and points, Gretzky formed an inseparable bond with Howe, who was almost 33 years his senior.
They first met in 1972 at a Kinsmen Dinner in Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky's hometown. Gretzky was 10 and was in awe of Howe. Gretzky was also awe-inspiring on the ice, the reason why a classmate's father who ran the dinner invited him and his parents to the event.
Howe was there. So was Canadian jockey Sandy Hawley, NFL quarterback Joe Theismann and Canadian Football League star turned wrestler Angelo Mosca.
"They had asked me to be part of it and my dad accepted it, I didn't know anything about it," Gretzky said. "That morning, my dad and mom took me down to get a new suit. New suit? My first suit. I was going to meet Gordie early at the hotel and I think the media was going to be there to interview Gordie and Sandy Hawley and Theismann. I was sort of just there, and that's when the famous picture was taken of Gordie and I when I was 10 years old."
The picture is of Gretzky standing beside Howe to his left, leaning in. Howe, who was seated in a chair, had a hockey stick in his massive right hand and curled the blade around Gretzky's neck, tucking it under his left ear.
"Gordie orchestrated the picture," Gretzky said. "We were kind of just standing there and he said, 'Hold on a second, give me a stick.' Gordie put the stick around me."
Video: Wayne Gretzky on the legacy of Gordie Howe
Later that night, Gretzky's father, Walter, asked him what it was like to meet Gordie Howe. You have to remember that at 10 years old, Gretzky idolized Howe so much that when he went to the barbershop for a haircut he'd ask to get the Howe cut.
"I said to my dad, 'I had so many things built up in my mind about Gordie Howe, and he was nicer and better and bigger than I had even imagined,' " Gretzky said. "I was so lucky that after that day and over the course of time our paths crossed. I played junior hockey with his son Murray in Toronto for a year. I would sit beside Murray on the bus all the time and I think he got tired of listening to my questions, but I was so interested in Gordie."
A little more than six years later, Gretzky, then 17, was signed by the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. Howe, who was playing for the New England Whalers, called him.
"The day I signed he called me and told me, 'You worked so hard to get here, but now the hard work begins,'" Gretzky said. "I remember he told me that. I'll never forget that."
Not long after, Gretzky was asked by WHA officials to fly to New York to do some promotion for the league along with Howe and Bobby Hull.
"Who knew Wayne Gretzky at 17?" Gretzky said. "I was like, 'OK, I'll go do it.'"
What happened is a moment that he'll never forget, a moment that carries greater meaning for him now considering the events of the past seven days.
"I'll never forget, we're standing in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel and Muhammad Ali was there and Muhammad Ali came over to say hello to Gordie and Bobby," Gretzky said of the late, great boxer who died on June 3. "I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, Muhammad Ali came over to say hello to Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull.' I thought it was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen. Ironically enough, just a crazy week. That was the first time I met Muhammad Ali, and Gordie Howe was the guy who introduced me to him."
Three years later, the NHL All-Star Game was held in Landover Md., just outside of Washington. Gretzky and Howe were invited by Bill Wirtz, the longtime owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, to a dinner. They sat at a table with President Ronald Reagan.
"I remember saying to Gordie, 'What fork do we use?'" Gretzky said. "There were like five forks and three knives and a couple spoons. Gordie was really funny, he said, 'I'll follow the president and you follow me.' I was like, 'OK, that works for me.' "
Gretzky remembers watching the interaction between Howe and President Reagan.
"I remember saying to my dad, 'President Reagan was talking to Gordie Howe like he was his best friend,'" Gretzky said. "It was the most amazing thing to me. He was so at ease talking to Gordie and I kept thinking, 'Wow, how cool is that?'"
Video: NHL players react to the passing of Gordie Howe
But that was Howe. That's what he did. As the years went on, Gretzky grew to have an appreciation for the way Howe made everyone he talked to feel special, including media members.
"He was from a different time, a different era," Gretzky said. "He would go fishing with guys like Red Fisher, Frank Orr and Stan Fischler. He was friends with those guys. They didn't just idolize Gordie and write Gordie was the best player, they were friends with him. He would go out of his way to make sure Danny Gallivan could spend time with him. That's the way it was and that's what Gordie did, he made everybody feel special. He just had this 1-on-1 relationship with people. He was just a normal person.
"I remember one of the first times I walked through an airport with him and I was just amazed at how everyone knew Gordie Howe. It seemed like every single person stopped and talked to him and he would stop and talk to everybody. I was like, 'Oh my God, is there anybody in this world that doesn't know Gordie Howe?"
Reminded he gets similar treatment now, Gretzky responded, "Oh, not like him. He was pretty special. He was everything."