SUN Hockey Pool

Behind every Great One...

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:49 PM ET

From the time they first hooked up as young Oilers phenoms until the day a teary-eyed Wayne Gretzky "promised Mess I wouldn't cry," the Great One always seemed to know Mark Messier's next move.

Yesterday was no different.

"He's probably already crying now, just got off the plane," smiled Gretzky, when asked if perhaps The Moose would shed a few tonight when his No. 11 jersey is raised to the Rexall Place rafters.

"Let's face it, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He loves life. He loves people.

"He's a wonderful man. Being that he's an Edmonton boy, for them to raise his sweater is something well deserved."

Standing in the Calgary rink in which so many of their greatest battles took place, Gretzky was only too happy to reminisce yesterday about a man No. 99 claims made him better every night.

"We pushed each other," said Gretzky seconds before hitting the Saddledome ice for a morning skate with his Coyotes.

"If I wasn't playing well, he'd tell me, 'You've got to play better.'

"If he wasn't playing well, I'd tell Jari (Kurri) to tell him he wasn't playing well."

Cue the laughter for the first of many stories spun yesterday, the first of two full days of civic tributes to the Edmonton icon.

"He was," as Gretzky recalls of a fiery-eyed 17-year-old he first laid eyes on in Cincinnati, "a little bit of a loose cannon.

"He was probably more frightening back then.

"He came into the game obviously as one of the best skaters ever. He was also a physical, impact player who played with a mean streak -- a lot like Gordie Howe.

"But the thing I don't think a lot of people realize is over the years he really worked on his skills and he became one of the best passers to ever play the game. A great playmaker.

"I look at guys like (Dale) Hawerchuk, (Adam) Oates, myself and Mario (Lemieux) and Mark could pass as good as any of those guys."

What separated him was unrelenting grit.

"(Former Oilers head coach Glen) Sather used to say to us, 'One day you guys are going to have your numbers in the rafters' and we used to kind of laugh about it because we never used to think about that stuff," said Gretzky, whose Coyotes will face the Oilers following tonight's ceremony.

"All we thought about was playing hard and winning."

Together they did both as well as anyone in hockey history, be it for the Oil or for their country.

Born eight days apart on opposite sides of the country, they united for nine glorious NHL seasons and four Stanley Cups, spearheading a talented young group that followed their lead on and off the ice.

"We often laugh about it to see guys on teams that don't get along or can't function -- we never had any of that whatsoever," said Gretzky.

"If he got three goals, I was happy for him and, if I got three goals, you guys would've thought he got them because we wanted each other to do well."

Together, they always did.

Fittingly, Gretzky will be by Messier's side tonight, sharing one more special moment ... and maybe even a few tears.


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