LOS ANGELES — Hockey’s three greatest living players opened what is arguably the greatest collection of National Hockey League stars ever assembled by agreeing that none of them was the greatest who ever played. Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux all said Gordie Howe was in a class by himself.
“I think we’re all pretty much in agreement that Gordie was pretty special,” Gretzky said of the man he idolized and who died last June. Orr, who played against Howe, said, “Gordie, in my mind, is the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure we’ll ever see another one.”
And Lemieux, sitting with the other two icons, added, “He could play any way you wanted out there . . . He played until he was 51 years old.”
Actually, a case could be made for any of them. “That’s what makes sports great and that’s what makes hockey wonderful,” said Gretzky, whose Babe Ruthian statistics probably never will be surpassed.
The point is that the NHL is celebrating its 100th year by celebrating the top 100 players in its history, a list that was announced Friday night as a precursor to a Hollywood-flavored All-Star Game at Staples Center tomorrow.
Jon Hamm, the star of “Mad Men,” hosted the ceremony (after the first 33 all-timers, from the Original Six era, were named earlier in the month). Among the entertainers scheduled to appear during the weekend is rapper Snoop Dogg. Still, the league is emphasizing that the most brilliant stars in its constellation are its players, past and present.
“We’re like little kids. We’re having more fun than anybody,” said Gretzky, known as The Great One for being the league’s all-time leader in goals, assists and points.
Among the first players announced Friday night were 1970s- era Rangers Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, Phil Esposito and Marcel Dionne. Among those who followed were Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Mark Messier, Pat LaFontaine, Billy Smith, Mike Gartner and Denis Potvin.
The NHL is the second-oldest of the four major North American sports organizations, following Major League Baseball, and it values its history. It was in keeping with that tradition that the other legends spoke so warmly about Howe. “It’s not a bad thing to be named in the top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe,” Gretzky said.
But many fans and experts would say that Orr was the preeminent talent for the way he revolutionized hockey as a defenseman who could control the game at any moment on either end of the ice. Gretzky said that when he played with Ace Bailey, a former Orr teammate, he drove Bailey crazy asking questions about Orr.
Orr is now the agent for Connor McDavid, who plays for the Oilers, the franchise for which Gretzky is an executive. McDavid aspires to catch up with the current consensus No. 1 player, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team Lemieux owns.
It was not lost on Orr that the greats stay involved. “I think that’s why the game is so great,” he said. “The players just don’t walk away. They come back and try to make the game even better. I think that says a lot for our game.”
What the Big Three also said about the game is that its best days are not behind it. “The game is in better shape today than it ever has been,” Gretzky said.
That includes the system of regular-season overtime, which consists of a three-on-three period. Sitting alongside Orr and Lemieux, Gretzky said, “The three of us would have been pretty good three-on-three.”