DETROIT -- Even the Great One has a hero and that hero was and will always be Gordie Howe.
That is why Wayne Gretzky came to Joe Louis Arena very early Tuesday morning, so he could pay his respects during the public visitation and serve as a pallbearer for Howe, who died this past Friday.
"I was really lucky," Gretzky said, choking up. "Not everybody gets to meet their hero or their idol. Sometimes when you meet them it wasn’t as good as you thought it would be. I got so lucky that the guy I chose was so special. Over time, not only did he become a mentor to me but we became friends and our families became friends."
It's easy to forget that someone as accomplished as Gretzky, considered by many to be the best NHL player of all time, could have idolized another player.
But growing up, Gretzky loved Howe in the way that only a child could love his favorite player.
"I made no secret my childhood dream was to play for the Red Wings," Gretzky said. "Somehow in my mind I figured I could wear No. 9. Obviously that’s not possible. Nobody is ever going to wear his number. I even tried to go to get my hair cut and asked for a Gordie Howe haircut when I was 9 years old. Everything I did was to be a Red Wing and be around Gordie Howe and be part of Gordie Howe’s world. That was all I dreamed about as youngster. I talk about this all the time still to this day, my favorite Christmas was getting a Red Wing No. 9 jersey when I was 5 years old. That’s still the best Christmas present I ever got."
Gretzky got a unique gift in getting to play against his hero as a 17-year-old in his first game.
"I was so nervous to actually be on the ice with him and get to play against him," Gretzky said. "He was winking at me the whole warmup. I thought, this is pretty cool. Gordie Howe is winking at me. I took the puck from him about the second or third shift and all of a sudden I got a whack from him. I thought I broke my thumb. And he said ‘Don’t ever take the puck from me again.’ OK.
"So in the locker room, we had an old goaltender named Gary Smith that was our goalie. I said, ‘Gary, I don’t know what just happened. Gordie was winking at me the whole warmup and then he tried to break my thumb.’ He said, 'winking at you? He’s got a bad blinking problem.' Why didn’t somebody tell me? I thought he was wishing me luck."
Although Howe was unlikely to wish an opponent luck on the ice, off the ice he was one of the most friendly, accommodating athletes to everyone he encountered.
"I remember walking through the airport with him when I was 18 years old and every single person I think in the airport knew and recognized him," Gretzky said. "He stood and took pictures and signed his name. He never thought that it was a burden. He thought it was part of his life. He was Gordie Howe and he understood it and probably understood who he was better than anyone. Very humble."
Howe came from from humble beginnings so despite his incredible hockey talent, he never felt as though he was above anyone, something that Gretzky appreciated.
"As I always said, he’s the greatest hockey player who ever lived and happened to be the nicest man I’ve ever met," Gretzky said. "There’s not too many people who would say anything wrong or bad about Gordie Howe. He was a genuine man. I was telling his son today, you look at pictures of Gordie, remember Gordie at hockey games, Gordie never sat in a box or a suite. He always sat with the fans. He understood who he was. Didn’t bother him to take pictures or sign autographs. He was part of society in that way."
Howe became a part of Gretzky's life, so much so that he called him "a second father."
Gretzky's own father, Walter, accompanied him to Detroit to honor Howe.
"First of all, hockey is not going to be the same," Gretzky said. "The world is not going to be the same without Gordie. Somebody said it best this morning that (Jean) Beliveau, Rocket (Richard), Gordie, they were the three people that probably could change a hockey rink into a cathedral and when you walk in it was more like a church today.
"We replace athletes through time. In 10 years, another comes along, another hockey player comes along. But you don’t replace iconic people. Gordie was a special man and you don’t replace that. You might be able to have new hockey players but you don’t replace a person of his caliber."