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Mike Harrington: Trio of legends kicks off NHL 100

LOS ANGELES -- A room full of reporters sat through yet another press conference here Friday night. We've all done it thousands of times. I can guarantee you it's never been like this.

This was a dais for all time.

Sitting left to right in a ballroom at the massive JW Marriott at LA Live were Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux. It was the kickoff to the NHL100, the top 100 players in league history that were unveiled later Friday night next door in Microsoft Theater. And as impressive as it was to everyone in the room, it was equally impressive to the legends.

"We're like little kids," Gretzky said. "We're having more fun than anybody."

"It's so exciting," Orr said. "And to come here and be able to spend some time with them, have a few laughs, talk a little hockey, it's very special. Very, very special."

Orr is 68 now, Gretzky turned 56 on Thursday and Lemieux is 51. We're just over seven months since the death of Gordie Howe, who passed away at age 88 in June during the Stanley Cup final. Good luck trying to argue anyone else belongs on the Mount Rushmore of the game other than those four.

But asked if the greatest player who ever lived was on the podium. Orr made it very clear when he said simply, "No." Gretzky and Lemieux were shaking their heads in agreement.

Said Orr: "Gordie is in my mind the best to ever play the game. I'm not sure if we'll ever see another one. I sometimes sit and look at his numbers. As I sit sometimes and look at the numbers that these two guys put up, I think, how in the world did they do it? But Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever."

Added Gretzky: "I think we're all pretty much in agreement that Gordie was pretty special."

Orr might be the most special of all, for the way he revolutionized the game. He got a standing ovation when introduced in the theater during the ceremony. Until Orr came along in 1966, defensemen simply stayed at home. He was the first to skate and shoot and score.

"My dad never really went to many hockey games because we couldn't afford to go," Gretzky said. "But he went to a Bruins-Leafs game. I was about 7 years old and he came back and told me this guy Bobby Orr is pretty special. All I remember saying to my dad is, 'Yeah, but I can't play defense.'"

As Gretzky entered the NHL and his roommate in Edmonton was Ace Bailey, he reminsced with Orr's former Boston teammate.

"I think he probably got tired of me asking Bobby Orr questions," Gretzky said. "All I wanted to know about was what did Bobby Orr eat, what did Bobby Orr do, how did Bobby Orr practice. We're fans as kids and we're fans as players too."

Orr, of course, had a career cut short by injuries and didn't get to play in the 1980s. There were no Canada Cups, no All-Star Games with Gretzky or Lemieux.

"If I had any disappointments," he said, "it would have been not being able to play with the two guys here."

Orr smiled remembering watching Lemieux's first NHL game. It was in 1984 in Boston Garden and Lemieux burned the Bruins with a goal on his first shift.

"I said, 'The kid might have something going here. He's got a chance,' " Orr said of the current Penguins owner.

"The players that have stayed in ownership and management and the league and coaching and scouting, I think that's why the game is so great," Orr said.  "That's why there's so many nice people in the game. The players just don't walk away. They can come back to try to help make the game even better, and these guys do it and many others, and I don't think there's another sport where the number of players come back and continue to do things within the sport to make it better.

"I think that says a lot for our game, and I think it says a lot for the people in our game. And to be here with the top 100 players, it's pretty special."

Who's the best today? Orr's agency represents Connor McDavid, and he's well on his way to taking over the mantle of the best in the game. But he's still got a ways to go to take it from Sidney Crosby.

"He's the best player in the game," Gretzky said of Crosby. "He's earned that mantle. His work ethic is as good as anybody in hockey. I know Bobby is very close to Connor and that's the guy he's chasing. Connor sees him in his vision. That's what makes the game wonderful that you want to be as good as the best player. Right now, Crosby is the best player.

"You have to earn your stripes. Until somebody knocks him off his castle, that's the way it's going to be. He's won three Stanley Cups, two gold medals, has handled the pressure with grace and dignity and deserves all the accolades he's getting."

Lemieux, who housed Crosby as a teen-ager after he was drafted in 2005, certainly agreed.

"Just like Wayne was when he played, he's the hardest working guy out there, whether it's at practice or a three-on-three game at practice," Lemieux said. "He wants to win, he wants to be the best. I think his skating ability is second to none. His strength, his lower body strength is unbelievable ... Now he's starting to score some goals this year, leading the league in scoring. He's just a special player that comes along not too often."

The same can be said for these three greats. In one room. On one dais at the same time. Doesn't come along too often.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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