Gretzky thinks Howe is the Great One

Editor's note: This story was first reported on Feb. 6, 2015. Gordie Howe died on June 10, 2016.

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan -- The Great One would have the last word on this memorable night.

"He is, he was, he will always be the greatest of all time," Wayne Gretzky said.

A sold-out crowd of 1,500 stood in delirious applause as the annual Kinsmen celebrity dinner came to a close Friday night. Their native son, the incomparable Gordie Howe, had been honored beautifully on this cold and blizzard-like evening in the heart of the Canadian Prairies.

And Gretzky's final words were not rehearsed.

"It was from the heart. You don't plan something like that. He's so special," Gretzky told ESPN.com about an hour afterward, as he sat down to process what this evening meant to him.

"My relationship with Gordie goes so far back. He's such a unique individual,'' Gretzky said, pausing.

Was that a lump in his throat or just a moment to collect a long list of moments he has shared with Mr. Hockey?

For starters, Gretzky shared, most people don't realize he actually met Gordie Howe previous to that famous stick-around-the-neck photo taken of them both in 1972.

"I was telling Mark [Howe] and Marty [Howe] this, the first time I actually met Gordie was two years before that picture was taken," said Gretzky, which means he was 8 or 9 at the time. "I had gone down to the Brantford Civic Centre, Mark and Marty were playing Junior A for the Detroit Junior Wings against the Brantford Majors. And Gordie was at the game. I stood in the corner where he sat and just stared at Gordie the whole time, for two hours. I was too scared to get his autograph but I shook his hand. That was the first time I met Gordie."

Our conversation on this night, like so many times before, is briefly interrupted from time to time by autograph seekers or fans looking to snap a photo with The Great One.

The answer is always the same, Gretzky obliging, and not in a manner that makes it look like a chore, either. Another gift from Mr. Hockey passed on to him.

"I often say this, nobody handles people like Gordie. He's just a natural," Gretzky said at a news conference Friday morning. "He's at ease. He treats everyone the same, whether it's the prime minister of Canada or somebody that lives on a farm in Saskatchewan."

Gretzky signs his autographs carefully with clear penmanship, so the signature is easy to read. Gretzky learned that from both Howe and the late Jean Beliveau.

Gretzky can go on forever telling Gordie Howe stories. They come to him in an instant. And the look on his face as he gets ready to tell the next one says more than words how much Mr. Hockey means to him.

Which is why when he committed to the Kinsmen dinner two months ago, he made another decision: He would bring two of his kids, Ty, 24, and Trevor, 22, to be part of this event.

"I wanted my boys to see this," said Gretzky. "I wanted them to see who and what I idolized, not only Gordie, but his entire family. What it means to hockey, what Gordie Howe means to people in Canada. I wanted them to see what it's meant to me, not only as a hockey player but how Gordie influenced me as a person in my life."

The Gretzky kids are L.A.-born and bred, but summer visits to Grandpa's place in Brantford, Ontario, over the years helped draw a picture of what their famous father means to this country. Seeing their dad take his place with Gordie Howe on this special night also hammered home the point.

"I realize what this country has done for my family, it's unbelievable," Trevor, a baseball prospect in the Los Angeles Angels system, told ESPN.com on Friday night. "Every time I come up here, the people are so nice, they're unbelievable. Any time my brother and I have a chance to travel with him up here, we come. ...

"Everything we have in our family is because of the NHL and the sport of hockey."

Watching his father navigate politely through autograph seekers here the past few days again reminded Trevor, a pro athlete in his own right, the way things should be done.

"I've always looked up to him," Trevor said of his dad. "As a young kid, I noticed how he interacted with people. Every kid wants to be like their dad, we're no different. I've watched him throughout my life and how he handles people, and I try to go about it the same way."

Trevor and Ty watched Friday night as Gretzky took his turn on stage in front of the crowd of 1,500 to tell a few Gordie Howe anecdotes. Gretzky talked about the time he and Gordie met President Ronald Reagan.

"I'll never forget the president saying to Gordie during our visit, 'You know, Gordie, I don't trust those effing Russians.' Gordie says, 'You know what, neither do I,'" recalled Gretzky, and the crowd erupted in laughter.

Later on Friday night, during my conversation with Gretzky, he talked about that exchange again and the reason it stuck with him all these years later.

"It's that the president was so comfortable talking to Gordie," said Gretzky. "I remember saying to my dad when he asked me how it went, I said, 'The president swore to Gordie Howe!' It was so empowering to me. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh.' I'll never forget that moment."

It's important not to forget. Gretzky mentioned several times during this visit that younger people need to realize just how amazing Howe was, playing in the NHL at the age of 50.

"I'm impressed by Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Toews -- those guys do such great things for our game today," said Gretzky. "But Gordie Howe is the greatest player who ever lived. There's not even a question about it. Imagine scoring 20 goals at 50 years old? Jonathan Toews might be the greatest athlete in the game today. He's not playing at 50 and he's not scoring 20 goals. Nobody ever will again. It's a fact."

Gretzky's voice goes a little quiet. He thinks about his dad, Walter, and the connection that also exists with Gordie Howe.

"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."

If this indeed was the last time Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe are together, it will have been beyond perfect.

"But I hope I get one more chance to be with Gordie," said Gretzky. "He's just a good man."