EDMONTON - There he was, Wayne Gretzky, just a 17-year-old kid, sitting in the dressing room beside Gordie Howe, preparing to play in the WHA all-star series in Edmonton against Moscow Dynamo.
Howe was 50.
"I remember sitting there thinking 'Oh my goodness he's old,'" Gretzky said.
On Wednesday, Gretzky turns 50.
"I was playing with the Oilers with guys like Cowboy Flett, Ace Bailey, Paul Shmyr and Dave Dryden. They were guys in their 30s. I thought they were old.
"Then to be sitting there with Gordie. It seemed like he was falling asleep, then he kind of opened his eyes, looked at me, and said 'Gee, Wayne, I'm nervous.' I remember looking at him like he was crazy. It seems like yesterday."
It was No. 9, the world's oldest professional hockey player, and No. 99, three weeks short of his 18th birthday, and Gretzky remembers somebody writing that Gordie had played more all-star games than he'd played regular-season games.
"I remember coach Jacques Demers telling me I was going to centre a line with Gordie and his son Mark.
"Me centreing Gordie Howe. Now all these years later, I can't imagine being the 50-year-old in that game.
"I remember thinking my dad was really old when he turned 50. It's probably like that with our two youngest with me turning 50."
Those two would 10-year-old Tristan and seven-year-old Emma in his family which includes wife Janet, Paulina, 22, Ty, 20, and Trevor, 18.
"You are as old as you want to be. I don't feel 50. I try to work out every day. But by no means could I come back and play and be out there like Gordie was back then.
"I'm just happy that I got out of the game without having a major injury. I see guys who had the concussions, the knees, bad backs, shoulders ... I was pretty lucky. I don't feel 50 at all," Gretzky said.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people who are trying to make him feel 50.
"You start thinking maybe you're old when you run into people from Edmonton and they tell you that their grandparents used to go to all the games.
"I took my youngest son Tristan to a Kings game because he wanted to see Taylor Hall play when the Oilers were in L.A. My oldest son Ty wanted to watch Steven Stamkos. So we went to that one. It was fun to see those two kids play, just being a fan going to the game with my own kids."
Gretzky understands that his turning 50 is a milestone for a lot of people who have used him as something of a landmark for their lives.
"To me it's just another birthday. I'm not making a big thing of it. But I understand how it might have some special significance to a lot of others.
"We all have that one person, other than your mom or dad or grandparents, that you idolize. Sometimes you build them up so much they turn out to be not as good as you thought they'd be. But my guy turned out to be bigger and better than I thought he would be. My guy, of course, was Gordie.
"I met him when I was 10 and then played on the same team in Toronto as one of his sons, Murray, when I was 14, so I'd see Gordie at games and practices.
"When I joined the WHA, they flew me to New York to do some media with Gordie and it struck me at the time how immensely popular he was. Everyone seemed to know him. Everyone seemed to stop him and he never seemed to have a bad moment with that. I really got lucky with the guy I idolized. I still call him periodically. He's had a tough time since his wife passed away. I feel fortunate that we ended up being friends."
Gretzky will never forget his own birthday, his 18th, back when Gordie was 50. It was about three weeks after that WHA all-star game.
On Jan. 26, 1979, they wheeled a cake in the shape of his number 99 out to centre ice. There was a bottle of baby champagne from his teammates. And his brothers Keith, Glen and Brent were brought on the ice wearing matching hats. The on-ice birthday party was as advertised but not what happened next.
Gretzky signed a contract which would make him an Oiler until 1999.
"I signed it on the ice. The cake. My goodness. Who knew when I turned 18 I'd play until 1999. I was just hoping to prove myself to stay in pro hockey."
He admits it seems insane to sign such a contract now. But then ...
"I could have broke my leg or something. My dad was sort of a security guy. Besides, I loved it there. That's where I was going to stay and play. I was OK with it. I felt really positive about it. But some of my older teammates thought I was going to be pretty good. They had more belief in me and my potential than my dad and I.
"One of my teammates told me to sign it Bob Smith. I actually started to make the B for Bob ... but I couldn't. But that is one weird looking W on Wayne where I signed.
"Everything worked out."
Gretzky said it seemed like his birthday was on a game night for his entire career. And, of course, Mark Messier would have his eight days earlier.
Gretzky was at Messier's 50th last week in New York.
"His wife threw him a surprise birthday party at a restaurant. Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish and their wives Karen and Debbie flew out from Edmonton. Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves were all there. All of Mark's family was there. It was great. Mark thought they were just going out for dinner and we were all in the back room."
Nothing like that for Wayne, though.
"The opposite approach," he said. "Home. I'll keep it quiet."
Gretzky said he harbours no ill will to the NHL with the events which led to the end of his time with the Phoenix Coyotes, including as head coach.
"I loved it. Maybe one day I'll go back to it. I talk to Kevin quite a bit in Edmonton to keep up with what's going on.
"I don't really have a lot of plans. I get up in the morning. I'm happy. I have a great family and a lot of friends. I feel I've been blessed in life. I'm looking forward to whatever comes next."
He wasn't referring to his 50th birthday.