Gretzky told Patrick he had a conversation with Howe’s youngest son, Murray, several weeks ago in which the Toledo-based doctor told him the family recently had to place the Howe family patriarch in hospice care. Howe suffered a stroke in 2014 and was reportedly also battling dementia. Given his recent health issues, his passing did not come as a shock to those close to the Howe family, according to Gretzky, but the loss still hit hard. In his brief interview with Patrick, Gretzky called Howe the greatest player in hockey history.
“In passing, I think everyone knows my opinion of the man,” Gretzky said. “He was a special person. He was a great ambassador for the game of hockey and was a wonderful father and great grandfather and to me he was the greatest hockey player to ever play.”
“He was everything you could imagine. I tell people this all the time — the two greatest players ever were Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. In my mind, Howe was so special because he was strong, fast and he was tough and he loved to play hockey.”
Gretzky’s earliest interaction with the Red Wings great came in 1971, when the future face of the league was just 10 years old. Gretzky recalled being surprised during the meeting , saying the hard-nosed player was a kind soul.
“He was nicer and better and kinder than I could have ever imagined,” Gretzky said “And he went on to do so many great things for so many people. He’s going to be sorely missed.”
Howe thrived as a scorer and a fighter, staying in the NHL’s top 10 scorers for 21 consecutive seasons. In remembering him, Gretzky recounted a story from Howe’s final seasons with the Hartford Whalers. The team participated in four games in seven nights in addition to normal practices; after the brutal stretch, Howe, 50 years old at the time, showed up to an optional practice session, telling teammates, “I got to practice.” The Whalers had to hide Howe’s skates from him to convince him to take a day off.
“His life was love and his life was hockey,” Gretzky said.