Every wide-eyed youngster has heroes. They can be fictional characters like the X-men, movie stars like Vin Diesel or The Rock. In the vast majority of cases, though, athletes fill that role for children. As it turns out, that’s even the case for kids who grow up to be star players themselves. Yes, even heroes have heroes.
Number 99 was a fan of No. 9. The Great One grew up worshipping Mr. Hockey.
“The first memory I have of Gordie Howe is meeting him as a 10-year-old,” Wayne Gretzky said. “A lot of times, when you meet your idol, you come away disappointed.
“That wasn’t the case with Gordie. He was such a kind, wonderful person to everyone he met. My father (Walter) and Gordie Howe are probably the two men who have had the most profound effect on my life.”
Gretzky’s respect and adulation for Howe only increased as the two men became peers. Gretzky turned pro with the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers in 1978, meaning he’d be playing against Howe’s New England Whalers. They were teammates on the WHA All-Star Team that season.
“I always looked at Gordie Howe the same way I did when I was six years old,” Gretzky said.
Moving to the NHL the following season, Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers did battle with Howe’s Hartford Whalers. Howe played in his final NHL All-Star Game that season, while Gretzky skated in his first.
Gretzky would go on to shatter all of Howe’s NHL career scoring marks but his ultimate goal was to be as good and kind a person as Mr. Hockey was throughout his life.
“We replace athletes through time,” Gretzky said. “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.”
“He was just a super person — a great hockey player but a great human being.”
Howe was a first-ballot hall of famer in hockey, humility and humanity.
“I don’t know if I ever met another person in life that was never not bothered by it,” Gretzky suggested of the price of fame. “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. 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.”