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Gretzky on Howe: 'He’s the greatest hockey player who ever played'

Hockey: Hall of Famer Gordie Howe (R) with Los Angeles Kings Wayne Gretzky during press conference after Gretzky broke Howe's career points record during game vs Edmonton Oilers at Northlands Coliseum. Edmonton, Canada 10/15/1989 CREDIT: David E. Klutho (Photo by David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X38959 TK2 R17 F1 )

Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe have often been linked throughout their careers.

Howe set many of the records Gretzky broke, but their relationship went deeper and was far more intimate for the two hockey legends. They shared an admiration and bond for each other that they often spoke about.

“Everyone knows my opinion about the man. He’s a special person. He’s a great ambassador for the game of hockey. He was a wonderful father. Great grandfather. For me, he’s the greatest hockey player who ever played. Sometimes when you meet your idol, it can be a little bit disappointing. You build them up so much in my mind. I built Gordie Howe up so much in my mind. My dad says how was it meeting Mr. Howe. It was the greatest day of my life. He was nicer than I could have ever imagined. He did so many great things for so many people,” Gretzky said on the Dan Patrick Show on Friday, the day Howe died at the age of 88.  “He was everything you could imagine. I tell people this all the time. The two greatest players were Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. How was strong he was fast. And he loved to play hockey. His love and life was hockey. I think he taught me that.”

The ‘Great One’ famously wanted to wear No. 9 in honor of Howe but couldn’t because a teammate on the Sault. St. Marie Greyhounds held it. So he switched to No. 99 and created his own legend with that number.

Gretzky idolized Howe growing up and got to meet Howe at a young age. No picture of the two is more famous than the photo of a 10-year-old Gretzky with Howe and a hockey stick around Gretzky’s neck.

“Somebody said ‘Let’s get a hockey stick in there,’” Gretzky recalled in a video posted by Sportsnet. “I think the reason they put it in there was because ‘who’s this kid beside him? What is it and what’s it about.' I think it legitimized it. It’s two hockey players one a kid and one Gordie Howe.” 

When Gretzky broke Howe’s records, he wanted to make sure Howe was part of the journey. Gretzky noted that the two played in different eras and that he was fortunate to come into his prime during a time when offense trumped defense. 

As Gretzky grew in stature and became an equal to Howe in hockey folklore he saw a kindred spirit in Howe as someone he could share these special occasions with and someone who knew what Gretzky was going through.

“Don’t look at this as I’m breaking your records. Look at this as the game’s changed,” Gretzky said he told Howe.

Part of the reason they got along was because of how important Howe was to Gretzky’s family, he told ESPN.com.

"My dad idolized Gordie Howe," said Gretzky. "And Gordie always treated my dad like he was the prime minister of Canada. From day one in 1972 when I first met him, until when I became MVP in the NHL, he always treated my dad the same way.

"My dad would always say, 'Gordie Howe is the greatest player who ever lived.' My dad is my biggest fan, but I'm always No. 2 to Gordie Howe for my dad. And I'm OK with that."

But maybe most importantly, Howe passed humility onto Gretzky. Of course hockey was a player’s job and a way to make a living for him and his family. But each and every hockey game was unique and special to people who paid for their tickets for that night’s action. Howe made sure Gretzky didn’t forget the fans and the paying public.

CANADA - OCTOBER 15: Hockey: Casual portrait of Hall of Famer Gordie Howe (L) with Los Angeles Kings Wayne Gretzky (R) in locker room victorious after breaking career points record during game vs Edmonton Oilers, Edmonton, CAN 10/15/1989 (Photo by David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X38959 TK2 R20 F12)

“He understood that every night someone was going to pay to watch Gordie Howe play,” Gretzky said in the Sportsnet video. “And he had to play as good as he had to play every game because that might be the one and only time somebody would get to watch him.”

Gretzky and Howe played together in 1979 when World Hockey Association All-Stars played in Russia. They opposed each other a few times that year in the WHA, and then faced each other in the NHL All-Star Game in 1980. This was made possible by Howe’s incredible longevity – playing his final NHL season at the age of 51 and scoring 15 goals in 80 games. 

“You knew right away Wayne was going to be a great player,” Howe said in the Detroit Free-Press for a 2005 story about the 1980 All-Star Game. “He was extremely smart and knew where everyone was on the ice. In the locker room I once parted his hair in the back to see if he had a third eye.”

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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