LOS ANGELES â€” Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, and Mario Lemieux all agree: there was nobody better than Gordie Howe.
Speaking together ahead of the NHL's 100 greatest players ceremony â€” kicking off all-star weekend in Los Angeles â€” the trio were asked if the best ever in history was among them.
"I think we're all pretty much in agreement that Gordie was pretty special," Gretzky said. "These two guys here were pretty special also. (But) we all have so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it's not a bad thing to be named in the top-100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe."
"I'm not sure if we'll ever see another one (like him)," Orr said. "I sometimes sit and look at his numbers, as I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it."
Howe, who passed away last June, scored more goals (801) than anyone but Gretzky (894) during a dazzling career that lasted until he was 51. He sits fourth all-time with 1,850 points, capturing six Hart trophies as league MVP â€” second to Gretzky's nine â€” and four Stanley Cups, all with the Detroit Red Wings.
"Yeah, he was certainly a very special player," Lemieux said. "But Wayne, with all the numbers (he put up), and Bobby really changed the game as far as the way the game is played by a defenceman, so these two were very, very special, as well."
Indeed, Gretzky's 2,857 points are far and away the most ever for an NHL player â€” 960 up on Jaromir Jagr in second spot. The Great One, who won four Stanley Cups, also ranks first with 1,963 assists and 1.92 points per-game, just edging out Lemieux. The long-time Pittsburgh Penguins captain (and now chairman and co-owner) posted 1.88 points per-game during a remarkable career which included two Stanley Cups.
Lemieux and Orr both won three Hart trophies. Orr's career ended at age 30 because of injury.
The trio headlined a truly remarkable gathering of the top players in league history with the likes of Eric Lindros, Grant Fuhr, Sergei Federov, Paul Coffey, and Pavel Datsyuk all milling about in one place for the NHL 100 ceremony.
"Just exciting," Orr said of spending time with Gretzky and Lemieux in particular. "From a distance I see Wayne and Mario, but I don't spend a lot of time with them, and to come here and be able to spend some time with them, have a few laughs, talk a little hockey, it's very special."
There was no doubt from Gretzky, acting as the NHL's official centennial season ambassador, about who was best in the game today. That honour, he believed, still belongs to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who leads the NHL with 28 goals, second to Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid with 55 points.
"That's the guy that (McDavid's) chasing," said Gretzky, who's also working on the business side of the Oilers franchise.
"Connor sees him in his vision. That's what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player. Right now Crosby's the best player. You have to earn your stripes. Until somebody knocks him off the castle that's the way it's going to be."
"The game is in better shape today than it's ever been," Gretzky added. "These players, from Auston Matthews to Connor McDavid, they're just tremendous players."
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press