Gretzky never saw a record he didn't want to break, but he wishes somebody else had owned this one. He insists that Howe will always be the greatest. Uneasy at the thought of diminishing a legend, Gretzky told Howe months ago it would mean a lot to him if he could be there when—gee, Gordie, sorry—the inevitable occurred.
Howe was equally gracious. "I kissed that record goodbye a long time ago, when Wayne started getting 200 points a year," said Howe. "He's good and I know, because I played with him. If you want to tell me he's the greatest player of all time, I have no argument at all."
Like its holder, Howe's record had been built to last. He dominated the corners—and didn't cut many either on the way to scoring his 1,850 points. All but the last five of his 26 NHL seasons were played in a fiercely competitive six-team league, where defenders gave up few easy goals.
Mr. Hockey had the arms of a lumberjack, and the callous disregard of one, too, for any limbs that might get in the way of his work. And yet Howe established the record—he became the NHL's career scoring leader in 1960 when he passed Montreal Canadien Maurice Richard's total of 965 points—with the patience and concentration of an architect. "He was in control of the whole game," says Gretzky, who watched Howe on TV in his prime. "He seemed to do everything so gracefully."
Howe averaged 30 goals and 40 assists a year for those 26 seasons. He never scored 50 goals, but only in his first three seasons and his final one did he score fewer than 20. He played a full decade before slap shots became common and almost another 10 years after that before defensemen started to join the attack. Only in the last four NHL seasons before his first retirement were there expansion teams like the California Golden Seals to pile up goals on, making 100-point seasons possible. Howe didn't have one of those until 1968-69, the second season after the league doubled in size. He was 41 years old then, good as always, but more remarkable than ever.
"I don't care how far past his record I go, he'll always be the greatest player who ever lived," says Gretzky. "And the classiest, too. See, one of the great things about him is that he doesn't get into comparing eras. You'll never get him to say that the competition now is watered down.
"It bothers me, sure, when I hear that. Obviously, the game is not as defensively oriented as it was in his day. The defensemen almost never came up past the blue line. Offensive players were never used to kill penalties. But you won't get Gordie to say now that the game used to be better. Because it wasn't. I can see how it has improved just from when I came into the league. I'd see a 6'3" defenseman then and I figured I could have a field day because he couldn't move. Now they're that size, but mobile and smart too. The skill level is higher now than it was 20 years ago, and 20 years from now it'll be higher than it is now."
When it reaches that point, Gretzky will continue to be a marvel. Fortune has delivered to the same era two players—Gretzky and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux—who are far and away the most prolific scorers in the game's history. That says something about the era, of course. But the points Lemieux and Gretzky are running up also may show that presumed performance limits in hockey are not physiological but psychological. Lemieux, a hugely productive but still underachieving talent in his first three NHL seasons, was finally challenged by Gretzky to be as good as he could be when they played on the same line in the 1987 Canada Cup. Lemieux has outscored Gretzky in the two years thereafter.
And it should not be forgotten that Gretzky is only 28. If he averages 160 points over the last seven years of his current contract, he will have 2,957. To beat that, Lemieux, now 24, would need 187 per season for 12 years. "I think if Mario stays healthy, he has a chance," Gretzky said last week.
If he does, he will not only have to be as skilled as Gretzky, but he'll also have to care for the game as much too. Last week the energy, the sheer joy of playing that passed from Howe to Gretzky when he was just a kid, were returned as Gretzky unselfishly turned this record for the ages into a celebration of Howe. "Thank God Wayne is the person he is," said Colleen, "because he is bigger than the league. He is what hockey is today."