Prior to the NHL 100 ceremony at Microsoft Theatre inside L.A. Live, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux sat behind a podium and answered questions from the assembled media. The first question: Is the greatest player to ever play sitting at the podium right now?
“I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special,” Gretzky said. “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.”
Said Orr: “Absolutely. Gordie is in my mind the best that 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, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”
Gretzky confirmed that he, Orr and Lemieux would vote for Gordie Howe.
“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there, and 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 Jagr, my buddy. Yeah, he was certainly a very special player, 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.”
More questions and answers that relate to Los Angeles and the L.A. Kings:
Q. Wayne, how do you feel when people give you a great deal of credit for the success of the NHL starting here in Los Angeles and in the western part of the United States when you came here?
WAYNE GRETZKY: Oh, listen, I said this before. 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, that we had to push and promote youth hockey and high school hockey. I think in ’88 there was four high school teams, and by ’95 there was 120 high school teams.
Everybody had a hand in it, and timing in life is everything, and when I came to LA, Mario was doing his thing in Pittsburgh; Brett Hull was recreating the St. Louis Blues; Yzerman was in Detroit and Mark Messier went to New York; and I think each and every guy understood that not only were they hockey players but they had to help sell and promote the sport of hockey, and we rode a wave together. And then along came this gentleman like Michael Eisner that 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.
I was a smart 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, and that really helped more and more youth 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. I had a small part, Mario did, Bobby, Gordie did, 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 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.
Q. Wayne, obviously when Bobby was tearing up the NHL, you were in the backyard trying to figure out the game you were going to play, and you played with Mario in Canada Cup and you played against him. Can you talk a little bit about your memories of Bobby and what he did, and also of playing against and with Mario?
WAYNE GRETZKY: You know, my dad never really went to many hockey games. We couldn’t afford to go. These guys were so high priced. But he went to a Bruins-Leafs game, and I was about seven years old, I remember, and 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, okay, forget about Bobby Orr, you’re not going to be that kind of a player.
I’ve told this story many times. I played with a guy named Ace Bailey, and unfortunately he died in 9/11, and I used to sit with him, and we were roommates, and 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 and 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.
And 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 first game against Czechoslovakia, and we had a two-on-one and I passed it to him, and he passed it back to me and I missed, and we went to the best, and I went, 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.
But we’re all kids. 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 that gave us an opportunity to play the game we loved, and we all wanted to be part of the National Hockey League.
Every now and then we go, well, that guy retired, how are we going to replace him, and then other guys come along. Like I said earlier, the game is in great shape today, and the players that are playing today are wonderful young men, and they carry themselves extremely well, and 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.