- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2020

Alex Ovechkin admired Wayne Gretzky as he was growing up playing hockey in Russia while Gretzky dominated the NHL. It’s clearer than ever that that admiration is mutual.

In Ovechkin’s and Gretzky’s first-ever joint interview, recorded remotely from their homes because of the coronavirus pandemic and aired Monday, “The Great One” said he is rooting for “The Great 8” to break his career goals record of 894 — using words like “when” it happens, not “if.”

“I can’t help but cheer and root for him each and every day,” Gretzky said as Ovechkin looked on. “I watch a lot of his games. I probably watch almost every game he plays. I hope for him to score goals, I pull for him to score goals. I think it’s great for the game.

Gretzky has said he hopes to be the first to shake Ovechkin’s hand if and when he scores No. 895, a sentiment he reiterated in the strongest terms yet during Monday’s interview.

“I remember when I was breaking Gordie Howe’s (goals) record, my dad said to me at one point in time, ‘Your record is going to be broken one day and I hope you have as much class and dignity as Gordie Howe has had with you breaking his record,’” Gretzky said. “And I hope I do. I hope that I’m the first guy to be able to shake his hand when he does break my record. I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that he has a great chance to do that.”

Expect Gretzky to stay true to his word. He mentioned he plans to be in the building to see his record fall live and in person.

“When (you) get to 890 and I’m with (wife) Janet, following you around, make sure you do it quickly,” Gretzky jokingly told Ovechkin. Ovechkin replied that he believed their wives would get along.

Ovechkin said with no games being played right now, he has “lots of time to think about” what it means for him to seriously threaten Gretzky’s record.

“It’s great for game, it’s great for me, for my teammates, it’s great for Washington area, D.C. area, to be able to see that,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously sometimes — right now I can’t even realize what I did through all my career, because my career is not ending, but to be eighth all-time on the goals in whole NHL, it’s special.”

Gretzky and Ovechkin also shared stories of when Ovechkin requested a game-used stick from Gretzky for his collection, and the advice “The Great One” gave when Ovechkin was on the precipice of his 700th NHL goal earlier this season.

When the NHL season was suspended, Ovechkin stood at 706 career goals, eighth in NHL history. He was a few weeks removed from scoring the milestone 700th goal on Feb. 22, after several games stuck on No. 699. Gretzky told him to relax and forget about the outward pressure.

“I texted him and said, ‘699. Not a lot of people have been there. And I don’t think people realize the microscope that you’re under,’” Gretzky said.

Considered two of the sport’s all-time greats, Gretzky and Ovechkin met early in Ovechkin’s career and have kept up a relationship ever since. When Ovechkin asked for a stick a few years ago, Gretzky replied — in Ovechkin’s words — “Yeah, win the Cup and I give you a stick.”

Gretzky added that Ovechkin didn’t bother him until after he led the Capitals to the 2018 Cup title. After that, “I heard from him once a month, ‘Where’s my stick?’”

Ovechkin asked Gretzky what he would do if he were playing in the league in present day and he faced an abrupt break from hockey.

“I probably would’ve found a pair of roller blades or inline skates and I would have been skating around flat property around the neighborhood as much as I can,” Gretzky said. “Because your hands and your shot and stick-handling, that’s never gonna go away. But one of the things you lose quickly if you’re not skating every day is that skating stride.”

On Wednesday, Ovechkin and Gretzky are set to play each other in “The Great One vs. The Great Eight Showcase,” a best-of-three contest in the video game “NHL 20.” The Capitals’ livestream on Twitch will benefit two charitable efforts: the Monumental Sports and Entertainment Foundation’s “Feeding the Frontlines” fund and the Edmonton Food Bank.

Gretzky had the idea after seeing a social media video of Ovechkin playing Xbox with his 1-year-old son, Sergei, on his lap.

“It’s not anything serious,” Gretzky said. “It’s about trying to help people who need help right now. The good Lord knows a lot of people need help at this point in time. For Alex and I, this will be a fun night of adventure and we’re looking forward to — I know I am — to participate. It’ll be fun.”

“Obviously I didn’t play a lot of ‘NHL,’ I’m kind of a different guy on the video games,” Ovechkin said, “but I’m going to try to do my best to beat Wayne.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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