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Hockey icon prepares to dethrone his hero

In 1971, a photographer for the Brantford (Ontario) Expositor took a picture of a middle-aged Gordie Howe hooking his stick around the ear of a wide-eyed, grinning, 10-year-old boy who already was a household name in Canada.

There were signs then that this Wayne Gretzky kid would be great. Not every 10-year-old scores 378 goals in 69 games.

But little did Howe and the rest of the hockey world know that he would grow up to break all of "Mr. Hockey's" records, including the most prized of all: 801 goals amassed over 26 seasons.

When Howe retired in 1980 at age 52, most people thought the record would last forever. But the end of forever is just around the corner.

Gretzky, who surpassed Howe's all-time scoring record of 1,850 points four years ago, is just three goals shy of 801.

"Each game I think about it," Gretzky said. "Normally, I don't think about records (he holds or shares 60) until I get close, but this one has been on my mind for a long time."

He will break the record with mixed emotions. Since netting goal 780, Gretzky has saved each stick he's scored with to put on a wall of his restaurant in Toronto.

But it also will be a little sad.

Gretzky worshiped Howe long before meeting his hero for the first time at age 10. "My best Christmas present ever, I was 5 years old and my dad _ I mean Santa Claus _ bought me a Gordie Howe sweater," Gretzky recalled at the All-Star Game in New York. "I wouldn't take it off, even though it itched like crazy."

Gretzky wanted to emulate Howe so much that he asked his barber, who happened to be his dad, to cut his hair just like Howe's, "even down to the little bald spot." He chose No. 99 because Howe wore 9.

Gretzky's respect for Howe has only deepened over the years. "It's hard when I know Gordie worked hard for 801," Gretzky said. "And it's disappointing because (the record) is something he should hold onto. The game wouldn't be where it is without his contribution.

"My feeling about him and the record is I wish they would put an asterisk beside it, so he has that era and I have this one. If Gordie were playing today, he would have about 1,100 goals because of his size and power and with the way the game has become more offensive."

How does Howe feel?

He doesn't want to talk about it now, declining interviews. But two months ago he told Reuters that hedoesn't resent Gretzky breaking his record, but would like to put it into perspective. He thinks the goal record should include all goals scored as a professional; Howe scored 174 in six seasons for the now-defunct World Hockey Association. But the NHL does not recognize those goals, just as the NFL would not recognize touchdowns Herschel Walker scored in the United States Football League.

"It's a bit confusing for the fans _ the record itself," Howe said. "I mean, I had (975) goals in my professional career. . . . Wayne is aware of my feelings, but as he said, he got a few goals (46) in the WHA, too."

Howe will not be in attendance when his record is broken. However, Howe consented, after some prodding from the NHL, to attend a ceremony after Gretzky surpasses his mark.

New York Ranger Mike Gartner, who recently notched his 600th goal and is second among active players, said he agrees there should be an asterisk.

"But it should be for the reason that Wayne's going to break a record in 15 years and it took Gordie Howe 26 years to do it."

Howe played 25 years for the Detroit Red Wings and one year for the Hartford Whalers in an era when scoring 50 goals was like scoring 75 today. He needed 1,767 games to reach 801 goals and never had a 50-goal season. Gretzky, who has played nine seasons for Edmonton and six for Los Angeles, netted his 798 goals in 658 fewer games and has had nine 50-goal seasons. If Gretzky continues on his current pace and plays the same number of games as Howe, he will finish with 1,271 goals.

"I thought my record was going to be impossible to break, but when Wayne got 90 in one season, I knew he would beat me," Howe said.

In 1981-82, Gretzky scored 92 goals and had 120 assists for 212 points in 80 games. Elias Sports Bureau calculated that accomplishment would be like a baseball player hitting 85 home runs and driving in 220 runs.

"I think you have to consider him a great athletic icon," said former Edmonton teammate Mark Messier. "I think he has to go down as one of the greatest athletes of all time."

After all, close your eyes and conjure up one image of Wayne Gretzky, and most likely he is standing behind the net, surveying the ice to make that perfect pass to a teammate while driving the goaltender into a frenzy.

"That tells you how great a player Wayne Gretzky is _ that you do think of him as a playmaker first," Gartner said.

"He's the smartest hockey player I've ever seen," added Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Phil Esposito.

As a scorer, Gretzky ranks himself No. 5, behind Howe, Esposito (717 goals in 18 seasons), former New York Islander great Mike Bossy (573, 10) and former Montreal Canadiens star Maurice "Rocket" Richard (544, 18).

Tony Esposito, the Lightning's director of hockey operations and a Hall of Fame goalie, agreed that all four were better "pure goal scorers" than Gretzky.

"Wayne was a much different type of player," said Tony Esposito, who also is one of only eight goaltenders who surrendered goals to both Gretzky and Howe. "He wouldn't overpower you like the others. He was so tricky with his lateral movement. He'd score more goals by getting you out of position. He'd just pick an opening.

"Howe shot much harder. He had a good hard wrist shot that could beat you in tight. And he was so strong he could move people off the puck and get off a shot."

While Gretzky idolized Howe, he never emulated his style. "Wayne couldn't play like those other guys," Tony Esposito said. "He was too small."

Howe was 6 feet 1, 205 pounds, was very strong and had a mean streak. Gretzky has a scrawny 170 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame and has won the Lady Byng Trophy three times for gentlemanly play. Close your eyes and conjure up an image of Howe and it's likely to be him rooted in front of the net like a Redwood.

"Gordie in front of the net, you couldn't knock him down," Edmonton coach and general manager Glen Sather said. "Wayne gets in and out of there so quickly you don't even notice him."

Calgary defenseman Al MacInnis said people always ask him, "Why doesn't somebody nail him?"

"If it was that easy, we would. He sees everything happening on the ice before everybody else does. So it's very hard to hit him. You try to contain him. It's like playing against a good quarterback like Joe Montana. You take away his receivers."

But the problem with taking away Gretzky's "receivers" is that he can make it into the end zone himself.

"I've seen him score 10 straight goals in 10 different places," former Edmonton teammate Kevin Lowe said. "Top shelf. Along the ice. Between the legs. Off-speed stuff. That's what throws the goalies off. They never know if he was going to unleash a Howitzer or throw an off-speed curve."

Gretzky has scored on 135 goaltenders. Richard Brodeur and Mike Liut have the distinction of getting lit up by No. 99 the most times, 29 each.

"I've never been embarrassed to have been scored on by a player of that magnitude," Liut said. "I can't say enough about him. Playing 40 years ago, Wayne would have been a great player. And Gordie Howe would be a dominant player playing today."

Tony Esposito couldn't decide who he would rather see taking a shot against him. "Wayne could make you look silly, and Howe could blow the puck past you. I don't know."

Will anyone surpass Gretzky's totals? "I never thought anybody would break Howe's mark," Tony Esposito said. "But times change. Maybe (Mario) Lemieux could have if he had stayed healthy. But is there an heir apparent? I don't see %% WARNING %%one. There is nobody else like Gretzky."

THE GREAT ONE

The NHL's goal-scoring record has been held by just six players in the league's 77-year history: 1917-23 _ Joe Malone (146 goals with Montreal, Quebec and Hamilton); 1923-33 _ Cy Denneny (246 goals with Ottawa and Boston from 1917-29); 1933-37 _ Howie Morenz (270 goals with Montreal, Chicago and New York); 1937-52 _ Nels Stewart (324 goals with Montreal, Boston and New York); 1952-67 _ Maurice Richard (544 goals with Montreal); 1967-present _ Gordie Howe (801 with Detroit and Hartford).

Howe scored his 801st goal in his 1,767th and final regular-season game April 6, 1980, against Detroit goalie Rogie Vachon. Ray Allison and Gordie Roberts (who was named after Howe) assisted.

Here's the breakdown of Gretzky's 798 goals: 178 on the power play, 72 short-handed, 78 game-winning, 20 game-tying, 46 empty-netters, 69 unassisted and one on a penalty shot.

Gretzky has had 189 multiple-goal games: 4 five-goal games, 9 four-goal games, 36 three-goal games and 140 two-goal games. But he doesn't hold the record for most goals in a game. Malone does, with seven, set in 1920. And six players have scored six goals in a game.

Jari Kurri, a teammate in Edmonton and Los Angeles, has assisted on nearly 25 percent (177) of Gretzky's goals. Ninty-seven players have assisted on his goals, including seven goaltenders.

Gretzky has scored on 135 goaltenders; he has scored six times on Tony Esposito.

Gretzky scored eight goals in 27 hours in 1984, scoring four against St. Louis' Mike Liut and four against Pittsburgh's Roberto Romano.

Gretzky has scored two goals against Tampa Bay. Against the current Lightning goaltenders, Gretzky has scored nine goals (five on Wendell Young, three on Daren Puppa and one on J.C. Bergeron).

_ CAMMY CLARK

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