Gretzky has scored five points in one game 58 times in his career, but he settled for a mere three against the Canucks, including an eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head pass around defenseman Robert Nordmark to Steve Kasper to set up the game-winner with one second left.
Howe claimed to have no inside word as to when the record breaker might come, but he did drop a hint in Vancouver that he might be in the know. He showed up for the Kings' game against the Canucks 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 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.
Howe first retired from the NHL in 1971, after 25 years with the Red Wings; he came back two seasons later to play in the World Hockey Association for the Houston Aeros and the New England Whalers for six years with his sons Marty and Mark. He then rejoined the NHL for one last hurrah, at age 51, with the Hartford Whalers in '79-80.
The Los Angeles papers noted the frivolous nature of Howe's comments about un-retiring, 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 AU-Star team in a '79 series against Moscow Dynamo, 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 20's, 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 young 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 Steelers.
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 Soviets, 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.