Wayne Gretzky idolizes Gordie Howe. Always has. Always will.
No matter who holds the scoring title.
In fact, Gretzky probably will take the National Hockey League career scoring title from Howe within the next week or two, but that won’t change his opinion of who really is the Greatest One.
“Gordie knows that he was the best player who ever played the game,” Gretzky said. “Because of points, that doesn’t separate anything.”
A couple of years ago, when it became obvious that Gretzky would inevitably break Howe’s record of 1,850 points, he said: “To be honest, that’s the one record I don’t want to break. He’s the guy who should be remembered as having the most points ever. . . . If I do break it, I want to go on to maybe 2,000. In all honesty, though, I’d really like to finish one point behind.”
Such is the extent of Gretzky’s admiration.
In 1961, the year Gretzky was born, Gordie Howe was among the top scorers in the National Hockey League. In 1972, the year Gretzky had the dizzying privilege of meeting Gordie Howe, Howe had just retired as the leading scorer in the history of the league after 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings.
It is no coincidence that Detroit has always been Gretzky’s sentimental favorite, the team he dreamed of playing for.
To this day, when youngsters stand in awe in the presence of Gretzky, he tries to treat them the way Howe treated him when he was a kid, when they met on that memorable day in 1972.
It was at a Kiwanis Club banquet in Gretzky’s hometown of Brantford in Ontario, and Gretzky, already a young hockey hero, was going to receive an award. Gordie Howe was to present it.
Gretzky remembers as if it were yesterday: “When they asked me to be there, I said, ‘I don’t have to speak, do I?’ And they said, ‘No, no.’ But they forgot to tell the M.C. and he introduced me to speak. There were about 700 people there. I didn’t know what to do. So Gordie told me to go up there and say, ‘I’m lost without a pair of skates.’ ”
And was the line well received?
“I didn’t say anything,” Gretzky admits, a bit sheepishly. “I was too nervous to remember it. I think I said, ‘Thanks.’ ”
What he does remember is that his hero had tried to help.
Howe remembers that meeting, too. Asked about it a few days before he was to fly to Los Angeles, where he will take part in ceremonies that follow the breaking of his record, Howe said:
“I met Wayne when he was about 11 years old. I went there to give Wayne an award. Just like I’m coming out there to give Wayne more awards. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked out to center ice to give Wayne awards. I’ve spent half my life running around giving Wayne awards!”
Howe said he is looking forward to seeing Gretzky break his record.
He said: “There are only two people I would like to see get the record, my son, Mark, and Wayne. And I guess Wayne has the inside track.”
Gretzky’s on track, all right, only 14 points away from topping the 1,850 points that Howe ran up over 26 seasons in the NHL--25 with Detroit and a much later comeback season with the Hartford Whalers.
(Howe also scored 508 points in his six years in the World Hockey Assn., but those aren’t figured into this record. With WHA points, Howe has a total of 2,358. Gretzky scored 110 points in his one season in the WHA, which leaves him 411 behind Howe in all-time scoring.)
Gretzky has scored his 1,837 points in only 10 NHL seasons. And Gretzky plans to play another seven years at least, until he’s 36.
Howe, who made a comeback at 51 to play on a line with his sons, Marty and Mark, says Gretzky could easily play well beyond his current contract range.
“He can play as long as he wants,” Howe said. “He’s so good, he can go out there and stand at the blue line and direct the game. . . .
“Wayne doesn’t know it yet, but the older he gets, the more he’s going to fall in love with the game.”
Nine years ago, Howe was quoted as saying, “It scares me when I think of how good he could become.” And now he’s saying, “Wayne showed last year when he played the way he did, adjusting to the change of teams and to the adverse conditions, that he’s still blossoming.”
Howe has said that he had his most productive year when he was 41.
So Gretzky could retire with some mind-boggling numbers.
Can those numbers be compared? Or are the eras too far apart?
Howe’s career spanned parts of four decades. When he played in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the NHL played a 60-game schedule. In the ‘60s, the schedule stretched to 76 games, and in the early ‘70s, it went to 78.
Gretzky has always had 80-game seasons.
Also, the rules and the style of play have changed to open the game up to a faster pace and more scoring.
“The big numbers weren’t there before, that’s a fact,” Howe said. “Just look at the goals-against numbers. If a goaltender had over a three-point average, he was gone. There are a lot more goals being scored because of the elimination of the one-line pass.
“I think that’s good. It’s a more entertaining game.
“But that doesn’t take anything away from Wayne. He would have been on top when I played. Look at what he’s done compared to the other players he has played with. He’s won the scoring race with 85 points more than the guys he was playing against. I used to win the scoring title with a total of 85 points.”
Gretzky’s 205 points in the ’83-84 season put him 84 points ahead of Michel Goulet of Quebec, although his linemate at Edmonton, Paul Coffey, was only 79 points behind him that season.
The year Gretzky scored 215 points, in ’85-86, Mario Lemieux of Pittsburgh was 74 points behind him.
Lemieux has won the scoring title the last two seasons, with Gretzky a close second.
But even while outscoring Gretzky, Lemieux has not begun to challenge him for his title as reigning star in the world of hockey. As evidenced by the fact that Gretzky won the Hart Trophy as most valuable player again last season.
Even Lemieux acknowledges that he won’t be considered in Gretzky’s class until he starts collecting Stanley Cup championships, as Gretzky has.
When he was asked, last season, about Gretzky and Lemieux, Howe said: “The big guy from Pittsburgh is coming along, but he’s not there yet.”
Lemieux did not burst upon the scene the way Gretzky did in his first year in the NHL, coming in to share the scoring title with the Kings’ Marcel Dionne at 137 points.
That was in 1979-80, the one year that both Howe and Gretzy played in the NHL, the overlapping of the eras.
Even before Howe’s final season in the NHL, however, the two had played against one another in the WHA, and even on the same line in that league’s All-Star game.
It was a big event for Gretzky.
“I really got to know Gordie the year that I turned pro, my year in the WHA (with Indianapolis and Edmonton),” Gretzky said. “We played together in Edmonton in the All-Star game. I was starting on a line with Gordie and his son, Mark. Jacque Demers (now of Detroit) was the coach. Gordie told me to hit the faceoff over to Mark and Mark would dump it in his corner. I was supposed to get in front of the net.
“So I got the faceoff to Mark, Mark dumps it in the corner to Gordie, Gordie got the puck, gave it back to me and I scored in nine seconds. It was incredible. I said, ‘This is easy.’
“It’s funny, you know, I’ve played with some of the greatest right wingers ever. A lot of great players. I’ve played with Gordie Howe.”
Gretzky still seems awed. He’s still a fan.
When Gretzky was playing Junior B hockey, when he was 13 or 14, he played with Gordie’s youngest son, Murray.
“I used to sit with Murray on the bus so he could tell me Gordie Howe stories,” he says.
As much as he liked to hear about Howe’s hockey successes, he was equally intrigued by the way Howe handled day-to-day responsibilities.
“Gordie has a tremendous amount of patience with everyone,” Gretzky said. “I tell people, of all the athletes I’ve ever met, Gordie Howe has tremendous class.
“He could sit down and have lunch with your mother and father and fit in easily. Or he could sit down and have lunch with the President of the United States and fit in easily. I don’t think that’s something that you learn, it’s something you grow up with. . . . I relate everything to the respect you have for your parents.
” . . . If you can conduct yourself half as well as what Gordie has done as far as on the ice and off the ice, you’ll do well.”
Howe is aware that Gretzky has watched him and emulated him over the years, but he considers that a natural progression.
“We all learned from somebody,” Howe said. “I learned from a man named Abbott Welsh in Saskatoon.”
Gretzky’s parents, Walter and Phyllis, will also be in the stands when Gretzky breaks Howe’s record.
The Kings are expecting quite an entourage--league officials, fans and reporters--to stay with the team until it happens.
It will be one big bash for the folks in the Gretzky party. And Gordie Howe is, indeed, looking forward to it.
“I drive Walter nuts!” Gordie says gleefully. “We have a lot of fun.”
Gordie Howe and Walter Gretzky have the same kind of unassuming, folksy, down-home sense of humor, while at the same time having the ability to cut to the heart of issues. They make quite a pair.
So Gretzky is right when he says, “Gordie Howe is having as much fun with this as I am. . . . Some players might be bothered by having their record broken, or even bitter. Gordie just goes with it.”
Howe will not be in Los Angeles for the Kings’ opener against Toronto Thursday. No one really expects Gretzky to score 14 points in one game. (The record is 10 by Darryl Sittler in 1976, and the most Gretzky has scored is eight.) Howe will be here for the game Saturday night, and he plans to stay with the team until his record falls.
“I hope Wayne does it fast, because I have a date,” Howe said. “My grandchildren want me at a grandparents’ day at their school Oct. 14. So Wayne had better hurry.”
Easy for Howe to say.
When Howe got within a goal of breaking Rocket Richard’s NHL record for goals back in 1963, he made folks wait 12 games. He had mashed his left hand against the boards along the way, so that helped to slow things up. And he ended up getting his record goal--short-handed--in the Montreal Forum.
King owner Bruce McNall likes the idea of getting Howe to his grandparents’ day, too. That would mean that Gretzky would get the record at least by Oct. 11, the day the Kings play the last game of their four-game home stand.
“There’s a little bit of pressure because the first four games are at home and I’d love to do it in L.A.,” Gretzky said.
McNall is as much as begging Gretzky to do it during that home stand. All summer he’s been promising: “A lot of ice time. Wayne Gretzky is going to get a lot of ice time in those games. The only question we asked the coach before we hired him was whether he would be sure to get Wayne a lot of ice time early.”
Gretzky counters with the statistical probability that he will get his 14th point of the season in the sixth game. After all, he does average between two and three points a game.
“Game 6 seems to be more realistic,” Gretzky says, watching McNall cringe.
Game 6 is at Edmonton.
No one seems to be pulling for Game 5 at Vancouver.
There are even some who think that with all the hoopla and the pressure, all the focus that the defenses will put on him while they know he’s going for it, that the watch might be on until Game 7 back in L.A.
But Gretzky is a big-game player, he thrives on pressure, and he will, indeed, be getting a lot of ice time.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as pressure for Wayne,” Howe said. “He’s so mature. He’s played with so much pressure on him for so long. He’s been under the looking glass for a long, long period of time, ever since he was about 12.”
REGULAR SEASON Points Gretzky 1,837 Howe 1,850 Goals Gretzky 637 Howe 801 Assists Gretzky 1,200 Howe 1,049 Games Gretzky 774 Howe 1,767 Seasons Gretzky 10 Howe 26 PLAYOFFS Points Gretzky 274 Howe 160 Goals Gretzky 86 Howe 68 Assists Gretzky 188 Howe 92 Games Gretzky 131 Howe 157 Seasons Gretzky 10 Howe 20 ACHIEVEMENTS Hart Gretzky 9 Trophy Howe 6 Art Ross Gretzky 8 Trophy Howe 6 All-Star Gretzky 10 Howe 21
Note: Gretzky has been a first-team all-star seven times; Howe was first team all-star 12 times.