All-Star Games aren't what they used to be for some NHL players.
That bothers the greatest of them all.
"As a player, I always felt that there were so many players who weren't ever going to be able to play in an NHL All-Star Game, who were never going to get that opportunity," Wayne Gretzky said. "I just always felt it would be so disrespectful to them if you said, you know what, it's not a big deal, I don't want to be part of it. I just always felt it was a privilege. If anything, I was always a little nervous that I wouldn't get picked. It was a big deal, from my first All-Star Game to my last."
To his last.
The NHL All-Star Game is returning to Tampa Bay for the first time since 1999. Anyone who was there back then won't forget that game – truly the '99 Game."
It was Wayne Gretzky's final NHL season, and his 18th and final All-Star appearance, which The Great One made memorable – and fitting – with a goal, two assists and MVP honors at age 38, all in a town that might never have discovered hockey if not for him. That All-Star weekend belonged to No. 99. It still does.
"Wayne put on a show, on and off the ice," said Jeremy Roenick, Gretzky's teammate in that '99 game.
"If I was writing a movie script, I like the ending," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Best of all for Gretzky, who still holds dozens of NHL scoring records, he played the fan while watching his lifelong idol, Gordie Howe, skate in the Heroes game held that weekend. Howe was 70 at the time. Howe's record 23rd and final All-Star Game, in 1980 at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, was Gretzky's first in the league.
"I was 18 years old," Gretzky said. "I played every shift against Gilbert Perrault, Guy Lafleur and a kid named Real Cloutier. I remember Gordie was 50. He got the most amazing standing ovation I'd ever heard."
The Great One and Gordie in Tampa wasn't so bad itself. It was unforgettable.
Their friendship began when Gretzky was 10. He had scored 378 goals in a season. It was then that he met the man whose records he would break all those years later. Howe, the Detroit Red Wings Hall of Famer, had come to Gretzky's hometown, Brantford, Ontario, for a sports banquet. Gretzky sat on the dais with Howe. The prodigy and Mr. Hockey.
"I got to know Gordie over the years," Gretzky said. "We became very good friends. I know that he was embarrassed by the attention. Gordie just played hockey. A splendid person, a great man."
The same has been said of Gretzky. The Great One. The selfless one. He never shied away from fans or promoting the game he loved.
The '99 Game, the NHL's first All-Star Game in the Sun Belt, was the perfect Gretzky moment. He was a leading reason for NHL expansion. When Hall of Famer and Lightning co-founder Phil Esposito looked to put an NHL team in Tampa Bay, he enlisted Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings for an 1990 exhibition against the Pittsburgh Penguins that drew 25,000 fans to the empty baseball park in St. Petersburg.
"Wayne was always there when we needed him," Esposito said.
"Phil had the foresight to want to put a franchise in Florida," Gretzky said. "He was a pioneer. I just came around at the right time. I knew this was a wonderful game."
Gretzky being selected for the 1999 All-Star Game was a farewell gift. The man who once scored 92 goals in a single season would finish with only nine in his final season, playing for the New York Rangers. No matter. He was among the 20 future Hall of Famers who played in the game at the Ice Palace in Tampa. Players were divided into two teams, North America and the World. No matter. Planet Hockey tracked Gretzky's every move that weekend.
"We all knew it was a big game for him," Roenick said.
The presence of Howe added to it. Gretzky watched with a child's delight as his friend Gordie skated and spent time with fans. That's part of Howe's legacy, as much as his skills and elbows. Gretzky was everywhere, too. It was nothing new.
"I still have signed pictures from when I was 6 years old, from Bobby Hull, from Gordie Howe," Gretzky said. "They're you're heroes. It's not just playing hockey. Part of the responsibility is being around people and trying to make them smile."
Few people knew going in that the game would the last one for Gretzky, and that it would be his final season. But No. 99 knew. He invited some close friends down from Edmonton for the game. The morning of the game, North America starting center Eric Lindros asked the coaches to let Gretzky start in his place.
"Which was a very generous gesture, very classy," Gretzky said.
He added, "I didn't want to do a farewell tour over the last 25 to 30 games. We stayed in Clearwater on the water. We were sitting on the beach having coffee. … I turned to my friends and told them, 'This is going to be my last All-Star Game.' "
Gretzky looked at his wife, Janet Jones. Their eyes met.
"Well, if it's your last game, try to win the car," she said.
"I can tell you're really shook up I'm retiring."
Then he went and won the car.
After an extended ovation when his name was called during player introductions, with even veteran players knowing they were part of history, Gretzky went out on top as North America won, 8-6. It was emotional for him. The MVP car was actually a truck. Gretzky had been honored with vehicles before.
"I always gave them away," he said. "That one I kept."
"To have The Great One hold the mantle of hockey in Tampa that glorious weekend was very special," Bettman said.
"The game owes me nothing," Gretzky said. "Everything I have in my life I owe to the NHL."
The Great One and Gordie were friends until the end. In 2012, Gretzky was invited to speak at a sports banquet in Sasksatoon, Saskatchewan, near Howe's hometown of Floral. Gretzky thought of a great idea. Remembering that night in Brantford, he arranged for Howe to be flown in for the dinner. Howe died in 2016. Gretzky was a pallbearer at his memorial service.
"But I remember that banquet," Gretzky said. "Going back to the hotel that night, I was thinking that was the happiest I'd seen Gordie in a long time, just chatting with his old friends, people from his hometown who he grew up with. It really was one of the prouder moments of my life. He had done so much for me and my family. The glow on his face just made it so special."
Gretzky, who turns 57 next week, glows while thinking about the All Star Game in Tampa.
"It was one of the great weekends of my life."
The Great One, always.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] Follow @mjfennelly.