It was also Howe who a few years later told the adolescent Gretzky that he had two eyes and one mouth and that the best advice he could give him was to keep the two open and the one closed. And it was Howe who, in that '79 series against the Russian club, told Gretzky to get the opening face-off back to Mark Howe and then go to the net. Mark would throw it into the corner, where Gordie would retrieve it and get it to Gretzky in front of the goal. In 10 seconds the puck was there for an easy tap-in.
And there was another lesson Gretzky would always remember. In the first WHA game he ever played against Howe, he stole the puck from his idol. Gretzky was wheeling back up ice, feeling very much like a legend-to-be, when he suddenly felt a sharp whack on his thumb. When he looked up, the old coot—always known for the crafty use of his stick—was winking at him.
GRETZKY NEVER SAW A RECORD HE DIDN'T WANT, but he wishes somebody else had owned this one. He insists that Howe will always be the greatest. Uneasy at the thought of diminishing a legend, Gretzky told Howe months ago it would mean a lot to him if Howe could be there when—gee, Gordie, sorry—the inevitable occurred.
Howe was equally gracious. "I kissed that record goodbye a long time ago, when Wayne started getting 200 points a year," said Howe. "He's good, and I know because I played with him. If you want to tell me he's the greatest player of all time, I have no argument at all."
Like its holder, Howe's record had been built to last. He dominated the corners—and didn't cut many either on the way to scoring his 1,850 points. All but the last five of his 26 NHL seasons were played in a fiercely competitive six-team league, where defenders gave up few easy goals.
Mr. Hockey had the arms of a lumberjack, and the callous disregard of one, too, for any limbs that might get in the way of his work. And yet Howe established the record—he became the NHL's career scoring leader in 1960 when he passed Maurice Richard's total of 965 points—with the patience and concentration of an architect. "He was in control of the whole game," says Gretzky, who watched Howe on TV in his prime. "He seemed to do everything so gracefully."
Howe averaged 30 goals and 40 assists a year for those 26 seasons. He never scored 50 goals, but only in his first three seasons and his final one did he score fewer than 20. He played a full decade before slap shots became common and almost another 10 years after that before defensemen started to join the attack. Only in the last four NHL seasons before his first retirement were there expansion teams such as the Oakland/California Golden Seals to pile up goals on, making 100-point seasons possible. Howe didn't have one of those until 1968--69, the second season after the league doubled in size. He was 41 years old then, good as always, but more remarkable than ever.
"I don't care how far past his record I go, he'll always be the greatest player who ever lived," says Gretzky. "And the classiest too. See, one of the great things about him is that he doesn't get into comparing eras. You'll never get him to say that the competition now is watered down.
"It bothers me, sure, when I hear that. Obviously, the game is not as defensively oriented as it was in his day. The defensemen almost never came up past the blue line. Offensive players were never used to kill penalties. But you won't get Gordie to say now that the game used to be better. Because it wasn't. I can see how it has improved just from when I came into the league. I'd see a 6' 3" defenseman then, and I figured I could have a field day because he couldn't move. Now they're that size but mobile and smart. The skill level is higher now than it was 20 years ago, and 20 years from now it'll be higher than it is now."