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100 Greatest Players

Emotions overcome stars at NHL100

Enormity of event humbles League's greatest legends

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- Bobby Orr was 12 when he first met Gordie Howe, his love and deep affection for him taking root when Mr. Hockey arrived in Orr's hometown of Parry Sound, Ontario, for a fishing trip.

Fast-forward 56 years to "The NHL100 presented by GEICO" on Friday night, with John Ondrasik performing "100 Years" as the soundtrack to a moving video salute to the 24 lost legends on the list of the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian.

A minute earlier, a room off the Microsoft Theater stage crowded with about 40 hockey icons was noisy with laughter and storytelling. When Ondrasik started to sing, you didn't hear so much as a breath, every man mesmerized by the grainy film on the video monitor.

It was then that Orr slowly wiped a tear from the corner of his eye as he watched the salute to Howe, his boyhood idol.

We tend to view NHL legends as larger than life, bulletproof, evergreen in our memories. But at that instant, you remembered there is a profound human quality among the fraternity of NHL players, no matter the crests they wore, no matter whether they played a thousand games or just one.

The 90-minute gala was the Centennial centerpiece of 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend, with 67 names being added to 33 announced on New Year's Day, completing the list. 

For the entire show, I was backstage in this curtained-off room where players would arrive, grouped by decade and position from the 1970s through today, from where they would be escorted to the stage for their moments in the spotlight. 

There is no way to properly describe seeing the black curtain open and a half dozen or more superstars walk inside. Ten minutes later, it would open again and in would come the next group, legend after legend, everyone wearing identical blazers with the NHL's Centennial logo on the breast pocket.

As they arrived chronologically by decade, you had a spine-tingling appreciation for the history of the League, of the otherworldly players who, in many ways, shaped hockey both for their own era and for the future of the game.

Their stories flowed like a stream, and in 90 minutes you would hear a great deal of the NHL's second half-century discussed in short anecdotes, jokes and tales that took some time to unfold, no one minding that the truth at times took a beating. 

And then there were the comparisons not of their teams, but of replaced joints, new knees and repaired shoulders, goals and assists blended with aches and pains.

It seemed Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's Centennial Ambassador, was being pulled by the show's producers through the curtain every 10 minutes, one more task for him to perform.

"Overworked and underpaid!" The Great One announced loudly to the laughter of all when he reappeared in the room once again.

No one was more starstruck by this evening than the legends themselves.

"It's humbling to be here today," Mark Messier said during a private reception before the gala. "I probably played against most of these guys. If not, then I watched them intently growing up. And if they're older than that, then I knew about them through the history of the game. I'm not sure if there's been an event I've been to since being a part of the NHL that has had a room full of so many incredible ambassadors of this magnitude."

Indeed, never had there been an assembly of this much NHL star power.

"There are award shows and certain events where a number of players and former players get together," Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "But there aren't any words to describe a group like this. It's really a cool thing to be a part of."

Crosby, one of six active skaters on the 100 Greatest NHL Players list, didn't quite know which direction to turn or whose hand he wanted to shake first.

Video: NHL's best talk about being named to 100 Greatest

"There are so many," he said. "To see Mario [Lemieux] and Wayne [Gretzky], then to see Maurice Richard's son here representing his father. It's incredible to see the trickle-down effect and what this all means to families."

Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews was thunderstruck, standing in the reception as the waves of incoming legends crashed over him like California surf.

"Look one way and it's Wayne Gretzky. Look the other way, it's Steve Yzerman," Matthews said. "Hopefully, I'll get to talk to everybody. There is so much history in this room, so many unbelievable players."

They had been arriving in Los Angeles since Thursday, about 20 of the honorees attending a casual Thursday cocktail reception. By midday Friday, the hotel lobby was swollen with fans and guests, milling about slack-jawed as Hall of Famers, some not having seen each other in years, hugged in reunion.

The legends would assemble at 4:30 p.m. Friday and then, almost en masse, with Gretzky, Orr and Lemieux to join them after their 5 p.m. news conference, descended two floors by escalator for a short walk outside to the theater, through a friendly gauntlet of adoring fans who couldn't quite believe a parade neither they nor the participants will see the likes of again.

Gretzky was one of the last to arrive for the pre-gala reception, playfully blowing kisses on his escalator ride at the theater. Messier grinned at all that was unfolding, taking stock of the men he had played with and those he had fought against, the wins and losses now sewn together, his sepia memories greater than any single event.

"I look around and see the [New York] Islanders guys here, I see Scott Stevens here from the [New Jersey] Devils, all the Philadelphia [Flyers] guys … it's a roomful of memories," Messier said.

Video: Scott Stevens Talks NHL100 Experience

"There are many people who would like to play even one game at the NHL level and they never get to. To play even one game is testimony to the amount of work you put in as a young fellow, preparing yourself to get that opportunity."

Backstage, goaltenders Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy, ranked 1-2 in games played and victories, chatted like the old friends they are.

As he eclipsed one great goaltender after another on his journey to the summit of his position, Brodeur learned much about hockey history from his late, Denis, a former goalie himself and for years the Montreal Canadiens team photographer.

"A lot of the men I passed, I had no clue who they were," Brodeur said. "Next thing you know, I was learning. At the end of the day, I'm just glad to be spoken of in the same breath as these guys. It was a great ride and I'm still living off of it."

The gala ended with every legend present onstage for a final bow to a standing ovation, media then pouring out of the wings to interview them where they had just been celebrated.

Amid the chaos, Orr handed a grinning Gretzky a dollar; something about a wager Orr had lost regarding how Gretzky would get his wife, Janet, up onto the stage.

"I don't remember exactly what the bet was," Gretzky said with a sly smile over breakfast on Saturday. "But I do recall telling Bobby that if he signed that dollar bill, it would be worth $1,000."

Video: Gretzky, Orr and Lemieux discuss their careers

Most among them retired to a post-gala reception where they had assembled before the show. For nearly an hour, I stood with former Canadiens captain Yvan Cournoyer, a 10-time Stanley Cup winner, and his wife, Evelyn, to chat with Chris Chelios, whose 26-season NHL career began with Montreal in 1983, four years after a bad back forced Cournoyer into retirement.

"The Roadrunner" opened his jacket to show "Yvan Cournoyer 12" embroidered on the inside right breast pocket, the suit being worn for the first time on this night. Evelyn wore a diamond "12" on a necklace.

"We had seen Phil Esposito's wife wearing a '7' on a necklace," Cournoyer said, laughing. "I told Evelyn, 'You're lucky I wore two numbers!' "

Orr was never far away, beaming and laughing and thoroughly delighted to be in this company, more stories in his repertoire than this night had hours.

It was after 10 p.m. when theater staff gently told everyone they had to leave, the hall pushed past its scheduled close. The parade back to the hotel was only a dozen or so now and autograph hounds were baying outside, ready to chase these legends down the street.

"I come to an event like this," Messier said, about to wade into the crowd, "and I just think how lucky I am to have had a little piece of the 100 years of the NHL."

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