Rangers Wayne Gretzky and former Oilers\' Mark Messier at pre-game ceremonies for Gretzky\'s last game in the NHL, April 18, 1999. (CPimages/ Paul Chiasson)
Almost three decades after Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier played their first games as teenagers with the Edmonton Oilers, that's exactly what will happen Feb. 27 when Messier's No. 11 is lifted alongside Gretzky's No. 99. The Great One and The Moose, together again.
"We were a bunch of kids," Gretzky, who'll be behind the bench with the Phoenix Coyotes when Messier is honoured, said Friday on a conference call.
"As silly as it sounds, I remember Glen (Sather) standing at centre ice telling us, you know, about hard work and winning championships. 'You guys don't realize that one day your sweaters will be hanging by the rafters."'
Twenty-eight years, 10 Stanley Cups and two hall-of-fame careers since they pulled on Edmonton silks together for the 1979-80 NHL season, it turns out Sather was right.
Gretzky, who had his number retired in 1999, never saw it coming - even if Slats did.
"We didn't look at that," Gretzky said. "We didn't even think about that. We just thought about enjoying the game and playing the game."
Just 18 when he arrived back in his hometown after being drafted from Cincinnati of the WHA 48th overall by the Oilers in 1979, Messier didn't tear it up in his first NHL season.
"I'd seen him earlier, so I had a little bit of an advantage because we played against him in Cincinnati," Gretzky said. "We were shocked the Oilers were able to get a guy of his skating ability and size.
"I don't think anybody anticipated we could get a guy with that much ability who was only 18 years old and that Glen was able to get him in the third round. We knew from Day 1 he was going to be a big part of the team."
Numbers-wise, 12 goals and 33 points didn't foreshadow a career in which Messier sipped from five Stanley Cups with Edmonton and another with the New York Rangers.
All told, Messier amassed 1,887 career regular season points, 295 in the playoffs and has been dubbed one of the greatest leaders in any sport, in any era.
"Off the ice, first and foremost, he was always unselfish as a teammate," Gretzky said.
"He had the ability as a teammate to be excited for another guy. If another guy did well in a particular game, you would have thought leaving the arena that Mark was the guy who had the hat trick. He was genuinely a really, really solid teammate to everyone."
Gretzky saw how special the strapping kid from St. Albert was - before the 50-goal seasons, before he was awarded the Hart Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy, before the legendary playoff performances.
"On the ice, he had a love and a passion for the game," Gretzky said. "You knew, at 18 years old, it was just going to be a matter of time because of his great skating ability and his physical size. You could see he was a man."
Messier, 46, is second in Oilers record books with 851 regular season games and 642 assists. He's third in regular season scoring with 1,034 points. He's second to Gretzky in playoff scoring with 215 points.
Messier's number joins Gretzky, the No. 7 of Paul Coffey, the No. 17 of Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr's No. 31 and the No. 3 of Al Hamilton, all of whom will be in attendance Feb. 27.
"It really is amazing for all of us," Gretzky said. "We never anticipated any of this. Now, to see guys like Grant, Jari, Coff and, now, Mess go up there, you can't even talk about how excited and proud we feel.
"Not only as individuals, but as a team. It's our belief as a group there's a couple other guys who should be in the Hall of Fame and there should be a couple more guys who should have their numbers retired."
As for the reunion at Rexall Place, Gretzky isn't offering an over-under on how long it'll take Messier, who played with such burning emotion, to break down on his big night.
"There probably isn't one because he's probably already cried thinking about it," Gretzky said. "It's probably already happened."