Wayne Gretzky recalls his friendship with Gordie Howe, 'the greatest' to ever play the game
'I remember thinking how lucky I was to meet him,' says The Great One
It's a moment Wayne Gretzky will never forget, a moment captured forever in one of the most iconic photographs in hockey history.
There he was, Mr. Hockey, already grey at the temples, with his stick playfully hooked under the chin of a jug-eared little boy who would one day grow up to break his records.
"Gosh, I remember being 10 years old, and I got to meet Gordie Howe," Gretzky said Friday, hours after the world learned that Howe had died at the age of 88.
"I remember thinking how lucky I was to meet him," Gretzky said. "He was just everything."
The relationship that began so long-ago lasted for the rest of Howe's life.
On Friday, as the hockey world mourned, the former star who came to be known as simply "The Great One" spoke to CBC News about his memories of the man he called "the greatest player" who ever lived.
"When I met him," Gretzky said, "I remember my Dad saying, 'How was it, meeting Gordie Howe?' And I said, 'Oh, my gosh, it was bigger and better and he was even nicer than I dreamed about.' "
Gretzky and Howe had many more encounters over the following decades. At one time, Gretzky and Howe's youngest son, Murray, played on the same junior team together. When Gretzky turned pro, he played alongside his childhood idol in the 1979 World Hockey Association all-star game in Edmonton.
Listen, Gordie Howe signed till he was 85 years old, and it never bothered him once. And if he can do that, we can all do it.- Wayne Gretzky
"He was a special man and to me," Gretzky said. "I remember walking through an airport with him when I was like 17 years old, and everybody ... every person that goes by stops and says hello, or gets an autograph. And it was just part of his life.
"People come up to me and say, 'Do you mind if I get an autograph, and sorry to bother you,' but I always say the same thing. 'Listen, Gordie Howe signed till he was 85 years old, and it never bothered him once. And if he can do that, we can all do it.' "
Gretzky recalled his idol's final all-star game, played in Detroit. He spoke about the ovation Howe received from the fans that night.
"I know he felt very proud of that day, and being able to play in that game back at Joe Louis Arena," Gretzky said. "Unfortunately, in the last seven days, we've lost two of the most influential and nicest athletes that we've ever seen in our lifetime."
'He was fan friendly'
It's fitting, perhaps, that Mr. Hockey died at 88 on the day of Muhammad Ali's funeral, said Edmonton sportswriter Terry Jones.
He said if anyone could be said to be Canada's Ali, it was Howe.
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"Anyone who met him felt compelled to tell people about what it was like, and what reaction they had," Jones said of Howe.
Jones, who interviewed Howe several times over the years, said he was a 10 or 11-year-old boy living in Lacombe, Alta., when he first saw the legend.
Back in those days, Howe's team, the Detroit Red Wings, held training camp in Edmonton, he said.
Jones idolized the Wings. And though he fancied himself a goaltender and revered Terry Sawchuk, it was Howe he badly wanted to see.
"I wanted so desperately to see Gordie Howe live and in the flesh," Jones said Friday, in an interview on CBC's Edmonton AM.
When the Wings were scheduled to play a game at the Red Deer arena, Jones's father knew how badly his son wanted to go.
The arena held only 1,900 people, he said, and was quickly sold out.
At game time, Jones's father took him to the ticket window at the arena and told the taker they had called ahead for tickets and there must be some mistake.
They were eventually admitted and Jones never thought higher of his father than that day, even as he committed larceny, he said laughing.
The first time he interviewed Howe as a sportswriter was at the CFRN-TV studios, where Howe was making an appearance on Popcorn Playhouse, a local children's show.
Howe was originally persuaded to do the show by local sports personality Tiger Goldstick, but loved it and would appear on the show on several more occasions, Jones said.
"Gordie just loved kids," he said.
Jones recalled watching Howe in a dressing room when someone influential brought in their son.
Howe would at first seem intimidating, but the boy left floating on air, he said.
"He just had a way that way," Jones said. "There was no prima donna there at all. He was fan friendly."