DETROIT — Wayne Gretzky reckons he was about five years old when he first saw Gordie Howe on television.
He immediately became a fan of the Detroit Red Wings star. Gretzky soon had a red and white No. 9 jersey — still his all-time favourite Christmas gift — and even wanted to look like the rugged forward from Floral, Sask.
A couple years later, Gretzky walked into a barber shop in his hometown of Brantford, Ont., with a specific look in mind.
“I said, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut,”’ Gretzky recalled. “So I was enamoured by him from a young age.”
Howe died last Friday at age 88. A public visitation was held Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena and Howe’s funeral is set for Wednesday morning in Detroit.
After spending a few hours on the arena floor during the visitation, Gretzky weighed in on how “Mr. Hockey” became his idol and a longtime friend.
“I was really lucky,” he said. “Not everybody gets to meet their hero or their idol and sometimes when you meet them it wasn’t as good as you thought it was going to be.
“And man, I got so lucky that the guy I chose happened to be so special.”
Howe made his debut with the Red Wings in 1946 and spent most of his long career in Detroit. He won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer on six occasions and also won the Hart Trophy as MVP six times.
Known for his famous elbows, Howe had a wicked mean streak. Off the ice though, he was gentle and soft spoken.
“He was a special guy,” Gretzky said. “He never asked for anything from anybody. But he would do anything for anyone.”
Gretzky added that it wouldn’t matter if you were a server in a restaurant or the Prime Minister, Howe treated everyone the same.
“He had a way with being able to talk to anybody and everybody and put everybody at ease,” he said. “He was just genuinely that nice, just a really good person.”
It didn’t take long for the memories to come flooding back as Gretzky held court with reporters.
“When I was 10 years old he told me, ‘Make sure you work on your backhand,”’ Gretzky said. “So I always had great pride and scored a lot of goals because of my backhand. (A) similarity we had as players was his backhand was strong and solid and I think that’s the one thing that I really picked up from him.”
Gretzky turned pro at 17 when he signed with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. He remembered joining Howe and Bobby Hull for a WHA promotional visit in the Big Apple.
“I don’t know why (I was there), nobody in New York knew who I was,” Gretzky said. “So it was really a tremendous trip for me. Gordie and Bobby took me to breakfast and we went to dinner. Muhammad Ali came over in the lobby to say hello to them and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Pretty cool.’
“But (Howe) told me at 17, it was the one thing I always remembered, he said, ‘You worked hard to get to the professional level, now you’ve got to work even that much harder. So many guys who turn pro sort of forget about that.’ That was the one thing he told me that always stuck in my brain.”
Years later, Gretzky would break Howe’s scoring records. The Great One said he felt somewhat embarrassed about it because their eras were so different.
He recalled a chat he had with his father, Walter Gretzky, when he was close to breaking Howe’s mark of 1,850 career points.
“My Dad said, ‘He’s what you should be when somebody is closing in on your records. He’s genuinely happy for you and that’s more important than anything,”’ Gretzky said.
And as for that debate about the best hockey player of all-time?
“The best. He was the greatest player ever,” Gretzky said. “I say this all the time. Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, you can pick who you think is better. I happen to be a little biased because I was a forward. I’ll take Gordie.
“But more importantly, he was the nicest man I ever met.”