They entered through the side door, at which point the rat-a-tat-tat of camera shutters sort of sounded like the firing of paintball pellets. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux took their places, stage right to left. They were inside the Platinum Ballroom at Los Angeles’s downtown JW Marriott, during the last Friday in January, at a press conference before the NHL unveiled its top 100 players of all-time. It was considered, let’s say, rather safe to trot this trio out ahead of time.
From the front row came the first question. “For all three of you,” asked Mike Zeisberger of the Toronto Sun, “is the greatest player to ever play sitting at the podium right now?”
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Lemieux smiled immediately. “Next question,” he said. Orr stopped fiddling with the microphone and leaned into it while breaking into a grin. “No.”
Gretzky laughed first and loudest, a 100-watt smile from No. 99, and then spoke. “I think we're all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special,” he said. When their turn came, Orr and Lemieux both began by saying, “Absolutely.”
“I think the three of us would vote for that,” Gretzky said. “So there you go.”
The late Howe indeed left quite the legacy when he died last June, at the age of 88. The thousands of points and infinite pugnacity, yes. But also, to the three legends onstage in Los Angeles and so many others, he was the universal main character in their childhood dreams. As much as Gretzky, Orr and Lemieux were recognizing greatness, they were also honoring an admired predecessor.
“There’s such a respect factor in our sport for the players who were there before, and we never took those guys for granted,” Gretzky said the day before the NHL 100 ceremony, in an interview with SI.com. “To us, as kids, they were always in our eyes bigger and better than the good Lord even made them.
“I remember the first time I met Gordie Howe and my dad said, “How was it? I said, “He was better and bigger and nicer than I ever imagined in my head or my book reports, just a very surreal meeting and moment for me in my life. It changed my life.”
In what way?
Let the Great One explain:
“I was 10 years old. I was a scrawny little kid. I remember thinking, he pulled up in his big white Cadillac to the event that we were doing that day, he got out of this car like when you’re a kid and you see Santa Claus, you can’t believe it’s real.
“It was a Lion’s Club event in my hometown [Brantford, Ontario]. An old jockey named Sandy Hawley was there, a couple CFL players. One of the guys on the board of the event thought it’d be really cool if they threw this 10-year-old kid into it. That year, I’d scored 400 goals and broke out of being a normal child at that point. But I was no different than any other 10-year-old. I couldn’t speak in front of anybody, let alone 750 people at a banquet. I remember shaking.
“We were sitting together at the table. I leaned over to him and said ‘Gordie, I’m so nervous, I’m petrified.’ And he was sitting with his legs up, eyes closed. He opened one eye and said, ‘I’m really nervous too.’ Then he said, ‘When you get up there, tell them you’re lost without your hockey stick and skates.’
“I got up there, I said, ‘Thank you,’ and started crying. I sat down. I got a standing ovation. Gordie said, ‘That was really good.’
“He had so much charisma and magnitude. He was so charismatic. For me, he was my life other than my mom and dad. My dad always said that the good Lord had my life mapped out for me, and as time went on, we developed a friendship and a relationship. At 15, I played junior hockey with Murray, his younger son. We spent a year together, Gordie would often come down to games, be around and say hello and I’d talk to him. He treated me with such respect. I couldn’t imagine that Gordie Howe would come over to me and say, ‘How are you doing, how are you feeling?’
“Later, I was playing in the WHA All-Star game and I was centering Mark and Gordie Howe. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness it was seven years ago I sat next to him at a banquet and couldn’t even talk to him.’”