There are very few records in sports that are widely recognized by their number alone.
762. The number of home runs Barry Bonds has hit in his career, the most ever by an MLB player. 2,015. The number of rushing yards Eric Dickerson picked up in 1984, the most ever by an NFL player in a single season. 100. The number of points Wilt Chamberlain scored against the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962, the most ever scored in an NBA game.
Another such number is 894, the final tally of goals scored by Wayne Gretzky throughout his NHL career. Since he retired in 1999, Gretzky’s all-time goals record has stood as one of the most unbreakable records in sports. The game of hockey has changed so much since his glory days, with goalies adopting more effective goal-stopping methods in front of the net and wearing thicker padding, that it didn’t seem possible for a player to ever reach that lofty of a figure.
That is, until the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin defied the aging curve and continued his torrid goal-scoring pace well into his 30s. After becoming just the eighth player in NHL history to score 700 career goals on Saturday, the winger officially thrusted himself into that conversation.
“I texted him the other day,” Gretzky told Rogers Sportsnet. “Alex and I are pretty good friends. He was at 698 and he went a few games without scoring. And I know that feeling. Everyone is watching you. There’s more media attention. You go into a city where you’re used to maybe eight or nine media people and then all of the sudden there’s 20, 25 people there. It takes a little bit of a toll on an individual."
Gretzky added in his conversation with Sportsnet: “I texted him at 698 and said, ‘Just relax, before you know it you’ll be at 700.’ And so when he got to 700 it was a simple, ‘Listen, I know you’re going to get to 800 real quick.’ It’s wonderful for the game with what he’s doing. I compare him to only two players that I know – Gordie Howe and Mark Messier.”
Gretzky, who’s always been lauded for his respect for the game and his opponents, put out a tweet Sunday congratulating Ovechkin for reaching the 700 mark. While speaking with Rogers Sportsnet, he reinforced his previous statements that he’d embrace Ovechkin breaking his record.
“If he breaks my record, I’ll be the first guy to stand there and shake his hand,” Gretzky said. “I think it’s great for our sport. I’m proud of what I accomplished, I know what I did was really hard. But, listen, I think it’d only be a positive for our game if he can break the record.”
Despite Ovechkin playing in his age-34 season, Gretzky believes he has the skills and situation around him that would make it possible for him to break the longstanding record.
“I’ve said a few times the things you’ve got to have in my estimation,” Gretzky said. “You’ve got to play on a good team, first of all. And he plays on a good team. He plays with a centerman who gets him the puck. Secondly, you’ve got to stay healthy. And he stays healthy. And you’ve got to love to play. Alex loves to play, loves to score. He competes hard every night. He likes to win as much as he likes to score and that’s a big, big factor. And so I think that he’s got a legitimate chance.”
While most would find it perfectly understandable for Gretzky to root for Ovechkin to fall short of passing him on the leaderboard, the Hall of Famer looked back at how hockey legend Gordie Howe treated him when he passed Howe for the top spot in 1994.
“I remember when Gordie was following me around and I was breaking his record, I said to my dad one night, ‘You know, I feel in some ways kind of bad. That’s Gordie Howe,’” Gretzky said. “But my dad said, ’You know what? Somebody is going to break your record and when he does make sure you’re as much a gentleman to him as Gordie Howe was to you. You smile, you shake his hand and you’re proud of what you accomplished. It’s better for the game.’
“And that’s what I always think of. I always think of Gordie Howe and what my dad told me.”
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