Indeed, three of the NHL’s aristocracy, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux, sat together at a dais to meet the media covering the NHL 100 gala, held at the Microsoft Theatre, also located at L.A. Live.
Yes, you read that right. Hockey’s three greatest players were together, and not just in the same vicinity. They were in the same room, seated next to each other.
In terms of hockey’s royalty, this was it, and at least some of the media were in awe, and rightly so.
But when asked about being hockey’s greatest players of all time, each deferred to someone who could have easily been the fourth person seated with them: the great Gordie Howe, who passed away on June 10, 2016.
“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” said Gretzky. “That’s what makes sports great and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all pretty much in agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”
“Absolutely,” said Orr. “Gordie is, in my mind, the best who ever played the game. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit, sometimes, and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, ‘how in the world did they do it?’”
“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind,” added Orr. “I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”
“I agree with these guys that he was a special player,” said Lemieux. “He could play any way that you wanted out there, and he was a great goal scorer—tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old and that’s pretty rare these days except for [Jaromir] Jagr, my buddy.”
“Yeah, [Howe] was certainly a very special player,” added Lemieux. “But Wayne, with all the numbers and Bobby really changed the game, as far as the way the game is played by a defenseman. So these two were very, very special, as well.”
As great as Howe was, of course, the three who faced the media horde gathered to see them were pretty good, too.
“[It’s] exciting,” said Orr. “From a distance, I see Wayne and Mario, but I don’t spend a lot of time with them and to come here and be able to spend some time with them, have a few laughs, talk a little hockey, it’s very special. Very, very special.”
“Speaking on behalf of the 100 players who are really fortunate to be here and be part of the National Hockey League, it’s a privilege to play the game,” said Gretzky. “We’re all fortunate enough that we’re part of this 100, and we’re all like young kids. We’re all thrilled to be here and it’s a great honor.”
Gretzky indicated that being part of the NHL 100 gala was something like being a kid in a candy store.
“We’re like little kids,” he said. “We’re having more fun than anybody. To be part of this with all the other guys, it’s been really a great honor to be here. That’s really all I can say. It’s a great thrill.”
“We’re all kids,” he added. “We all idolized the game, and we all grow up—that’s been the most interesting thing for me about this top 100 is that whether it was Doug Harvey or Bobby Orr or Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier or Gordie Howe. We all followed Hockey Night in Canada, we all followed the National Hockey League, we all collected hockey cards, and we all came from just really nice families and great parents who gave us an opportunity to play the game we loved, and we all wanted to be part of the National Hockey League.”
Gretzky also spoke of some of his memories of Orr and Lemieux.
“You know, my Dad never really went to many hockey games,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to go. These guys were so high priced. But he went to a Bruins-Leafs game. I was about seven years old, I remember he came back and he told me, ‘this guy Bobby Orr is pretty special,’ and all I remember saying to my Dad is, ‘yeah, but I can’t play defense.’ He goes, ‘OK, forget about Bobby Orr, you’re not going to be that kind of a player.’”
“I’ve told this story many times,” he added. “I played with a guy named Ace Bailey, and unfortunately, he died in 9/11. I used to sit with him and we were roommates. I think he probably got tired of me asking him Bobby Orr questions because all I wanted to know was what did Bobby Orr eat, what did Bobby Orr do and how did Bobby Orr practice? We’re fans as kids and we’re fans as players, and then I got a chance to play with Mario. I went and watched Mario play junior hockey when he was 16 years old and he scored five goals and five assists, I think, and somebody said, ‘what do you think,’ and I said, ‘I think he can play for the Oilers right now, and he was only 17.’”
“Then we got a chance to play together in the Canada Cup, and the only argument we had—it wasn’t even an argument, it was a debate. We played together in the first game against Czechoslovakia. We had a two-on-one and I passed it to him. He passed it back to me and I missed. We went to the bench, and I said, ‘Mario, if I give you the puck, you score. You’re a better goal scorer than I am.’ As fate has it, we had a two-on-one that ended the Canada Cup in Game 3.”
At first, Orr expressed regret that his injury-shortened career wasn’t long enough for him to have played with or against Gretzky or Lemieux.
“You know, if I’ve had any disappointments—I’m a lucky guy, and yeah, I wish I could have maybe played a little longer, but not being able to play against or with these guys in international hockey or whatever is something that is disappointing to me because they’re such great players,” he lamented. “I watched them play a lot. I watched Mario Lemieux score his first goal in Boston Garden. You can go back and take a look at it. I said, ‘I think he might have something going here.’”
“But I really do enjoy watching—I did enjoy watching both these young men, the way they represent the game, and I think that’s what makes our game so great,” he added. “The players who have stayed in ownership and management and the league and coaching and scouting—I think that’s why the game is so great. That’s why there’s so many nice people in the game. The players just don’t walk away. They can come back to try to help make the game even better and these guys do it and many others. I don’t think there’s another sport where the number of players come back and continue to do things within the sport to make it better. I think that says a lot for our game, I think it says a lot for the people in our game and to be here with the top 100 players, it’s pretty special.”
As it turns out, Gretzky and Orr did play in a game together, after all.
“Wayne and I did play one game together,” Orr noted. “I’ll leave that with you.”
The game was a charity game at Winnipeg Arena on April 25, 1980.
“We actually did play a game together,” Gretzky recalled. “I was so mad. I had to fly from Hawai’i, and the only reason I flew from Hawai’i to Winnipeg was so I could play with Bobby Orr. There you go.”
With the 2017 All-Star festivities being held in Los Angeles where Gretzky led the Los Angeles Kings to relevancy, not to mention their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, he shared his thoughts on the explosive growth of hockey, and not just NHL hockey, in Southern California.
“I said this before,” he said. “I came at the right time. We had guys like Luc Robitaille and Kelly Hrudey and Marty McSorley and Tony Granato and Rob Blake. Everyone understood their scenario, in a sense, that we had to do more than just play the game. We had to push and promote youth hockey and high school hockey. I think in 1988, there were four high school teams, and by 1995 there was 120 high school teams.”
“Everybody had a hand in it, and timing in life is everything,” he added. “When I came to L.A., Mario was doing his thing in Pittsburgh, Brett Hull was recreating the St. Louis Blues, [Steve] Yzerman was in Detroit and Mark Messier went to New York. I think each and every guy understood that, not only were they hockey players, but they [also] had to help sell and promote the sport of hockey, and we rode a wave together. Then, along came a gentleman like Michael Eisner who fell in love with ice hockey and said, ‘I want to have a hockey club,’ and everyone says, ‘how can you name your team the Mighty Ducks? How can you do that?’ But that helped propel and push hockey to another level.”
As humble as he ever was, Gretzky continued to deflect much of the credit for putting hockey on the map in non-traditional Sun Belt markets like Southern California.
“I was a small part of it, as was Bobby in the ‘60s in Boston, as was Gordie in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Detroit, and then, of course, 1980 with the team winning gold medal in the United States, which was very special,” he noted. “That really helped more and more kids to say, ‘you know what? I want to be a hockey player and I want to play this sport.”
“Everybody had a hand in it,” he said. “I had a small part. Mario did. Bobby. Gordie did. [Mark] Messier did. Brett Hull did and we’re all proud of it. It’s a privilege to play in the National Hockey League. We all had the same dreams growing up as kids. Mario probably wanted to be [Jean] Beliveau. Bobby Orr probably wanted to be Doug Harvey, and of course, I wanted to be Gordie, so we all had the same dream and that’s the interesting thing. When we all meet, we all had the same dreams as kids—that we wanted to play in the National Hockey League and the game is in better shape today than it’s ever been. These players from Auston Matthews to Connor McDavid, they’re just tremendous players.”
“Everybody has a hand in it and we all feel very privileged that we’re a part of the National Hockey League.”
When Gretzky was asked what would be the equivalent today for his single season NHL records of 92 goals and 215 points, Gretzky’s initial response was “93 goals.”
“You know, I don’t know,” he added. “The game has changed. Obviously, it’s more defensive now. It’s tougher to score, although they get more power plays now. We used to get one five-on-three every ten weeks. Now we get three a game. That’s pretty nice and three-on-three in overtime? I like that, too. The three of us would have been pretty good in three-on-three.”
Talk about an understatement.
“When Patrick Roy and Grant Fuhr and Marty Brodeur came along, it changed the game,” Gretzky noted. “Those guys had as big an impact in the game as any athletes who ever played the game, from myself, Mario, Bobby, Gordie. It used to be, and I say this in a nice way, the chubby guy was the goaltender because he couldn’t skate, but those three guys sort of changed everything. Now the goalies are the best athletes on each team. It’s harder to score. It’s really difficult. That’s the way it is right now.”
“Every now and then we go, ‘well, that guy retired, how are we going to replace him,’ and then other guys come along,” Gretzky added. “Like I said earlier, the game is in great shape today, and the players who are playing today are wonderful young men and they carry themselves extremely well. We should all be proud as ex-players and the National Hockey League should be very proud of what these young men do today. It’s very exhilarating.”
LEAD PHOTO: NHL royalty—Wayne Gretzky (left), Bobby Orr (center) and Mario Lemieux (right) spoke with the media prior to the NHL 100 gala on January 27, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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