The 55-year-old four-time Stanley Cup champion discusses his memories of his childhood idol, Gordie Howe, and his encounters with the other Great One, Muhammad Ali.
DAN PATRICK:Can you share your thoughts on Gordie Howe's recent passing?
WAYNE GRETZKY: Everyone knows my opinion about the man. He was a special person. He was a great ambassador for the game of hockey. To me, he's the greatest hockey player who ever played. Sometimes when you meet your idol, it can be a little disappointing. You build them up so much in your mind. I built Gordie Howe up so much in my mind when I was younger. My dad reminds me how [when I met] Mr. Howe, it was the greatest day of my life. He was nicer than I ever imagined.
DP:How good a player was he?
WG: I tell people this all the time. The two greatest players were Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. Howe was strong, fast, and he just loved to play hockey. His love in life was hockey. I think he taught me how to handle that.
DP:As for another recent passing, did you ever discuss your nickname, the Great One, with The Greatest, Muhammad Ali?
WG: He did [discuss it] with me one time. He came into the locker room in the old L.A. Forum in 1983. Mark Messier's uncle, Larry, used to be part of Ali's management and corporate marketing team. So he brought him down to the morning skate one day to meet the players, say hello and get pictures. Ali came into the locker room and said he was looking for the Great One because that person was not the greatest.
DP:Do you have other nicknames?
WG: A few. My family calls me Doc. Friends call me Gretz. And some of my old teammates call me Douglas because that's my middle name. So I've got more nicknames than I do assists here.
DP:Was meeting Ali intimidating?
WG: It was very intimidating. Once, I was in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and I was standing in the lobby with Gordie Howe. Muhammad Ali came over to say hello to Gordie, and I was standing there thinking, Wow, two of the greatest athletes and two of the nicest people of all time just standing in the lobby of a hotel talking and chatting. That was one of the great sports moments for me.
DP:Didn't your old Oilers teammate Dave Semenko fight Ali in an exhibition?
WG: Yes. Larry Messier set that up. Dave is a big man and a tough guy. He's 220 pounds, and Ali still looked like he was playing with a little kitty cat against him.
Former boxing champ George Foreman told me he still looks back at his title loss to Muhammad Ali in 1974's Rumble in the Jungle and sees it as his mistake: "You heard about the rope-a-dope?" Foreman said. "I'm the dope. Ali laid on the rope, and like a dope I kept swinging until I couldn't take it anymore." ... Former NFL QB Brady Quinn said Jon Gruden shared some odd perspective with him before the 2007 draft: "He said, 'I don't want my quarterbacks to look like you. A quarterback is supposed to look like a guy you could go out and have a beer with.'" ... I asked former NBA swingman Grant Hill if he ever wanted to punch teammate Christian Laettner while they were teammates at Duke. "I did punch him," Hill said. "He punched me before. That happens.... We all fought each other. We were very juvenile."