It was always for other people to call Wayne Gretzky "The Great One." He never called himself that. He just lived it as Gretzky the Great Hockey Player, winner of a thousand awards, Associated Press Athlete of the Decade in the 1980s, man of modest grace and aplomb off the ice.
Greatness to him is his father, Walter, who schooled Wayne in the game. And Gordie Howe, with whom he developed a friendship cemented in mutual respect early in his career. Now, there's greatness.
Wednesday morning, the Kings had a team meeting in a rinkside room under the stands at the Civic Center. When it ended, they filed out to go across the hall to get dressed for the morning skate. Gretzky was last to exit. Gordie Howe was waiting for him. They shook hands warmly.
The two best hockey players in history have always been close. It was Howe who set many of the records the Great Gretzky has broken. When Gretzky was a boy in Brantford, Ontario, learning the game under Walter Gretzky's proud, shrewd eye, Howe was his idol. When he came to junior hockey, Gretzky wanted to wear No. 9 because it was Howe's number. When it wasn't available, he settled reluctantly for others but as soon as the idea occurred to him he changed to 99 and that is now the most famous number in hockey.
There is a touch of the father-son bond to their relationship but it is more Great Gretzky-Great Gordie because they are the only ones who know the feeling of being considered the best hockey players ever. Howe is 63, Gretzky 30.
What they share is a commanding presence in hockey lore that knows no age.
They moved a couple of steps into a corner by the door. "Listen," Howe said. "We're going up to Toronto. Just want to know if your dad's taking any visitors."
Gretzky's eyes moistened. Walter Gretzky, 53, remains in a hospital in Hamilton, victim of a brain aneurysm. Gretzky spent 12 days at the bedside of the Great Walter Gretzky before rejoining the Kings in Detroit Monday after his father's condition became more stable. He had an assist on a goal by Jari Kurri in Detroit, but didn't score his first goal until Wednesday night against the Hartford Whalers.
"He's very incoherent," Gretzky told Howe. "They are not allowing visitors, but if you go up, of course it will be no problem. Thanks."
They chatted for a couple of minutes. Business, mostly. Then Howe said, "Listen, there's a young boy in town who has to have a hip replaced and ..."
"Just bring him down," said Gretzky, being effortlessly great. They shook hands again and No. 99 disappeared into the locker room. No. 9 said, "He waters up when he talks about his dad. That is one of the closest families I ever knew. And his dad just retired from Bell Telephone up there. Oh, sure, I know Walter. Great guy." Wayne Gretzky is the oldest of five children.
Howe produced a brochure on which was depicted a copy of a painting by Canadian artist James Lumbers. The left side of the painting shows a country pond. Walter Gretzky, wearing skates, stands bareheaded in jacket and scarf critically surveying a 10-year-old Wayne Gretzky, fully uniformed, skating full bore, with all the matchless, unmistakable characteristics of an older Wayne Gretzky's style. At the right is an ethereal, transparent figure of today's No. 99 charging down ice, overlaid on a crowded arena. "A Boy and his Dream," is the title of the painting. On the brochure is this quote from Wayne Gretzky: "Lumbers' painting portrays the time, work and love that my father devoted to me in helping me make this dream come true."
Coach Tom Webster sat in the stands watching Gretzky and the Kings practice. "(Walter) has had an enormous impact on Wayne's life and career and he loves him dearly. Everybody in sports has someone who has been a great influence. With him, it's his father. The family is the thing he cherishes most.
"When somebody gets sick and it's all in the hands of another person, well, you realize what this guy -- the greatest ambassador for the sport that hockey had known besides Gordie -- is feeling.
"How do you help anyone in this situation? I don't know. But by being here, by doing what he loves, maybe he can have a little peace of mind for two and one-half hours."
"Sometimes the best thing you can do is play," Howe said.
"Can you imagine how tough it must be for him to answer questions about this?" Webster said. "But he understands. You've got your job, just as he has his. So he did it in Detroit. He'll do it here and then Boston and then Toronto. He'll go through it. He'll say the things he has to say.
"He's not just a superstar in hockey, but as a human being. Am I making sense?"
Great doesn't mean superhuman. It doesn't even mean being a better hockey player than anyone else, before or since. Great means meeting life's routine tasks in spite of unbearable burdens.
Great Gretzky is more than an easy nickname, it's a truism. Walter Gretzky, who taught his son hockey, courage and love, is not here to admire his son's crowning greatness. But then, he has known about it all along.