I’ve always said it, and I will say it again. Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, who passed away on June 10 at 88, was the greatest player of all time. He scored 801 career goals, good for second all-time in the NHL. He holds the record for most NHL games played (1,767) and seasons played (26). He won four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings and played in his final All-Star game in 1980, when he was 51. That season, he scored 15 goals. But those incredible numbers tell just part of Mr. Hockey’s story. Gordie was just as good a person as he was a hockey player.
Growing up in Brantford, Ontario, I wrote letters to NHL players. Gordie, my hockey idol, sent me back a signed picture. When I was 10 or so, he visited my town, and I was lucky enough to meet him. Gordie grabbed his stick and put it around my neck. He couldn’t have been nicer.
I will never forget our first meeting on the ice, in 1978. I was playing for the Indianapolis Racers and Gordie for the New England Whalers. In the first period, I stole the puck from him and was skating the other way. Suddenly, I felt a good whack. He hit me and stole the puck back. He said, “Don’t you ever take the puck from me.” I said, “All right. It will never happen again.”
But he never made me feel like he was too good, too big time. He was always willing to guide me. In October 1989, when I was fortunate enough to break his all-time scoring record, Gordie said that becoming my friend was one of the better things that had happened to him in hockey. That speaks to who he was as a person. So unselfish, graceful and gracious.
Gretzky played 20 seasons in the NHL and was MVP nine times
This appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of TIME.