Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.
Before there was Gretzky vs. Mario and Crosby vs. McDavid, there was Mr. Hockey vs. The Great One. On this day in 1979, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe squared off for their first of four NHL matchups.
While there may not have been as much hype surrounding the first NHL showdown between hockey's elder statesman and its newest phenom, it was a significant game. It represented the passing of a torch from one career that spanned five decades to another that would be the greatest of all time.
That game may not have received top billing because, truth be told, Howe and Gretzky had already encountered each other before in the World Hockey Association. On Oct. 22, 1978, Howe was with the New England Whalers and was starting the final leg of a six-year sabbatical in the WHA. Meanwhile, Gretzky, who was only 17 years old at the time, was just beginning his professional career. Too young to join the NHL, the Brantford, Ontario, native signed his first contract with the Indianapolis Racers.
Gretzky idolized Howe growing up, so when he had the chance to actually play with him—even if it was on the opposite team—he was elated. Appearing on Conan last month, The Great One reminisced about that first experience. Besides mistakenly thinking that Howe was winking at him during warmup, Gretzky also discussed the on-ice welcome he received from Mr. Hockey.
"First shift I stole the puck from him and I was going the other way and all of a sudden I felt this stick and he cracked me over the thumb and he said 'Kid, don't ever take the puck from me ever again.' And I said, 'No, I never will.'"
A few months later, thumb fully healed, Gretzky had the opportunity to play alongside Howe when the WHA All-Star team took on the Soviet League's Dynamo Moscow in a three-game series. Not only did he find himself on the same team as Howe, but he was even on the same line. Forming the centre of the trio, Gretzky was flanked by his childhood hero to his right and Gordie's son, Mark, on the left. In the first contest, the three combined for eight points and beat Moscow 4-2. After the game, Howe was asked how good Gretzky could be. His response: "Only time will tell."
A year later, both players were in the NHL. The WHA had merged with the NHL and Gretzky found himself with the Edmonton Oilers after being traded there for magic beans a season earlier, while Howe was still with the Whalers.
Heading into that game in Hartford on Nov. 17, Gretzky was still a few months away from legal drinking age in Canada and Howe was approaching his 52nd birthday. When the buzzer sounded after 60 minutes of play, the edge went to Gordie, as the Whalers shutout the Oilers 4-0. Howe picked up an assist while Gretzky was absent from the scoresheet.
They'd meet again three more times that season. In the next matchup, Dec. 9, 1979, full marks went to Gretzky. With one goal and an assist he helped power Edmonton to a 3-0 victory. In their fourth and final game against each other, just two weeks after they had faced off again in the NHL's All-Star Game, Howe stole the show, but it wasn't Gordie, it was Mark. The younger Howe scored two goals, including the game winner, and picked up two assists as the Whalers downed the Oilers 6-2.
Howe ended up playing every game in 1979-80 and scored his 801st career goal, his final in the NHL, on April 6, 1980. Impressively, the 52-year-old finished the season with 15 goals and 26 assists, while Gretzky netted 51 goals as he cruised to a 137-point season.
The rest is history.
After Howe retired from hockey, the two formed a close friendship. As Gretzky continued to enshrine himself into the hockey record books, Gordie was there along the way. When No. 99 scored his 1,851st career point on Oct. 15, 1989, vaulting him ahead of Howe for the No. 1 spot on the NHL's all-time scoring list, Mr. Hockey was there to greet him at centre ice and congratulate him on the accomplishment.
Together they have 1,695 goals and 4,707 points. If you include their playoff performances than their shared point totals jumps up to a staggering 5,249. Their collection of hardware is just as impressive. Between the two of them, they have eight Stanley Cups, 16 Art Ross trophies, and 15 Hart trophies. Howe may not have as many held or shared NHL records as Gretzky—The Great One currently has 61—but he has an impressive array that even his protege couldn't touch. Most notable among them, Howe holds the record for most consecutive 20-plus goal seasons at 22, a milestone we may never see again.
While Gretzky scored 894 goals throughout his career, no tally was more special to him than when he broke Gordie's goal-scoring record. In his recent book, 99 Stories of the Game, Gretzky reflected on that goal and how he views Howe's place in the pantheon of hockey. "Of all the goals I scored in my career, that goal means the most because of the connection to Gordie Howe, the greatest of them all," he said.
Given the 34-year age difference between the two, we shouldn't have ever expected to see them play against each other in the NHL. The fact that we did, even if it was just for four games, is truly a special moment in hockey history—#tbt to when Mr. Hockey and The Great One faced off in the NHL.