From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, October 23, 1989
WHEN 11-YEAR-OLD WAYNE GRETZKY met Gordie Howe at a sports awards banquet in 1972, Howe gave him a piece of advice: Work on your backhand. Fast forward to Sunday, Oct. 15, 1989. Gretzky takes the puck on that backhand and flips it into the net with 53 seconds left in the Kings' game with the Oilers at Edmonton's Northlands Coliseum. In that instant the NHL career-scoring record of 1,850 points that Howe built over 26 seasons was surpassed.
Gretzky had tied the record with an assist early in the game, but as time ticked away in the third period, it appeared that the mark would not be broken this night in this place, with its strong ties to Gretzky. Then, suddenly, there was that Howe-recommended backhand, which Gretzky had practiced at home with a tennis ball only a zillion times or so.
Gretzky's momentous shot not only broke Howe's record but also tied the game 4--4. He then won the game for the Kings in overtime with still another goal, and he did all this against his old teammates, in the city where he led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups before being traded to Los Angeles last year. And he did it in 780 games to Howe's 1,767.
"There is no end to Wayne's brilliance," Howe would say after the game. Howe had been traveling with Los Angeles for about a week, at the invitation of Kings owner Bruce McNall. Though he claimed to have no inside word as to when the record breaker might come, Howe did drop a hint in Vancouver that he might be in the know. He showed up for L.A.'s game against the Canucks—two days before the record-breaking game in Edmonton—in a turquoise sport coat. "If I thought he was going to do it tonight, I would have worn a suit," Howe said. "The suit will be on in Edmonton."
That wasn't the first time during the week that a future Howe wardrobe had become an object of speculation. Five nights earlier he had suggested to the media that he might put on a uniform again after New Year's, at age 61, to fulfill a desire to play NHL hockey in each of six decades.
The Los Angeles papers noted the frivolous nature of Howe's comments about unretiring, but a Detroit paper took them seriously. Suddenly, Howe became interested. "The general public evidently is excited," he said, "and it does make you feel good." On Oct. 11, Howe's wife, Colleen, had a statement read to the press in which she downplayed this "fantasy," but then she added to the confusion by going to the podium and saying, "If he's going to get in shape for one game, he might as well play a season."
Gretzky, who began his professional career in 1978 with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA and thus got to play three games alongside Howe on an All-Star team in a '79 series against Dynamo Moscow, said he thought a Howe comeback was a great idea. "If Gordie wants to play, I'm sure he can," said Gretzky.
Well, if Gretzky has taken up the misguided notion that a 61-year-old man can still be competitive with elite athletes in their 20s, he should be indulged. His clouded thinking is the result of almost 25 years of acute hero worship.
It was Howe, after all, who rescued the 11-year-old Gretzky when the hockey prodigy was suffering from stage fright at that banquet in Brantford, Ont. Howe had jumped up, put his arm around Gretzky and announced, "When someone has done what this kid has done in the rink, he doesn't have to say anything." What the kid had done that year was score 378 goals in 82 games for the sub-peewee-level Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers.