LOS ANGELES (AP) — Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr were among the easiest choices for The NHL 100, the group of enduring superstars chosen and honored by the league Friday night as the best players in hockey history.
Yet if the Great One, Super Mario and No. 4 had to pick an NHL 1, they would all choose Mr. Hockey, the late Gordie Howe.
Wondrous athletes with incredible achievements were in abundance Friday night in downtown Los Angeles, the site of Sunday's NHL All-Star Game and the celebration of the league's centennial. Dozens of the NHL 100 members were honored in the gala ceremony, from 1970s greats Guy Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer to current Chicago Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews.
Many of the greats spared a thought for Howe, who died in June. He featured prominently in the memorial highlight reel shown to the audience at the Microsoft Theatre.
"Gordie is, in my mind, the best that ever played the game," Orr said while flanked by Gretzky and Lemieux. "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?'"
The NHL 100 was selected by a large panel of league executives, former players and media members. The league revealed 33 selectees who played during the league's first half-century on New Year's Day, and four of them showed up to receive a standing ovation in Los Angeles: Dave Keon, Johnny Bucyk, Frank Mahovlich and Red Kelly.
The rest of the 100 were named Friday, with most of the greats in attendance for a ceremony hosted by actor Jon Hamm.
"Quite an interesting evening," Mark Messier said. "I've been to a lot of All-Star games, a lot of award ceremonies, a lot of events with the NHL over the years, but this is definitely one that put things over the top. ... I grew up watching a lot of these players on TV, grew up playing with a lot of these players. So you talk about one big, long walking memory everywhere you look."
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby joined the Blackhawks' championship-winning trio among the active players in the 100. Jaromir Jagr, the Florida Panthers forward who turns 45 next month, was the final player named, getting a wild ovation in the theater when he took the stage.
"To be part of this group and have so many guys here that you look up to and that paved the way, were great role models for us growing up, it's really special," Crosby said. "You can go down the list. It's a pretty amazing group of players. Just to be in that company is pretty special in and of itself."
Bobby Hull and Brett Hull both made the 100, prompting Chris Pronger to declare that "there is probably not going to be a father-son combo like that again."
The host Los Angeles Kings had representatives including Gretzky, Luc Robitaille and Marcel Dionne.
Five players who recently left the NHL were recognized for their careers in the 2000s: Martin Brodeur, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Teemu Selanne.
The most prolific skater who didn't make the 100 was Mark Recchi, the 12th-leading scorer in NHL history. Other high-scoring stars who didn't make the cut included Doug Gilmour, Dale Hawerchuk and San Jose center Joe Thornton.
When asked to name his top omission, Lemieux chose somebody close to his heart.
"That's a tough call, but certainly (Evgeni) Malkin would be close to 101," the Pittsburgh owner said of the Penguins' former league MVP, who is skipping All-Star weekend entirely.
The league deliberately decided not to rank The NHL 100, preferring to allow fans to have their own debates. Gretzky realizes the essential futility of comparing players from different eras of any sport, yet he appeared to enjoy the hypothetical exercise as much as any hockey fan.
"The game has changed," Gretzky said. "Obviously it's more defensive now. It's tougher to score. Although they get more power plays now. Used to get one 5-on-3 every 10 weeks. Now we get three a game. That's pretty nice."
One other change has caught Gretzky's eye recently, and he thought of it while sitting next to Lemieux and Orr.
"And 3-on-3 in overtime, I like that, too," Gretzky said with a wry grin. "The three of us would have been pretty good in 3-on-3."