SELDOM are career records in any sport handed off between athletes who have forged a real friendship. That appears likely to happen in hockey, though, where Wayne Gretzky is closing in on Gordie Howe's record of 801 career National Hockey League goals. Gretzky, of the Los Angeles Kings, had 793 goals (before Monday night's game) in 15 NHL seasons and will probably catch the Hall of Famer before the current season ends. Howe's career spanned 32 years.
Many casual fans may not remember that the two stars once played at the same time in the now-defunct World Hockey Association and were briefly teammates during the 1978-79 season in the WHA all-star game. In what was Howe's last professional season and Gretzky's first at the major-league level, they began a mutual admiration society. Howe, the venerable veteran, admired Gretzky's considerable hockey skills as well as his good manners. As WHA all-stars, Howe assisted Gretzky on a goal by passing the puck to the precocious 17-year-old.
Gretzky's unusual jersey number - 99 - is today a symbol of his veneration for Howe, who wore No. 9. The two first met when Gretzky was 10 years old, and Gretzky remembers feeling his hero was ``bigger and better than I could have ever imagined.''
French say Olympics were worth it
Judging by a recent survey, the French had a sweet-and-sour reaction to hosting the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. In a poll that excluded inhabitants of the Savoie region, where the Games were held, the $2 billion cost of the Olympics in Albertville (compared with $1.05 billion for this year's Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway) ranked right behind the opening ceremony as the most noteworthy aspects of what took place. Half of those surveyed said the Games ``cost taxpayers a fortune,'' yet 38 percent agreed that ``the importance of the event made it worthwhile.'' Despite the cost, more than 60 percent of the respondents said the Olympics improved France's image abroad and left a favorable impression for Savoie.
Touching other bases
* The most dominant team in college sports may belong to Northeast Louisiana University, which has won 11 national championships in the last 15 years. For help in guessing the sport, here's a clue: To win its latest title in October, NLU beat out the University of Central Florida and Southwestern Louisiana University. (Answer below.)
* Toronto is in jeopardy of losing the expansion franchise the National Basketball Association awarded to it if the province of Ontario doesn't soon ban legalized betting on NBA games. The selection of Toronto has always been contingent on this point, and provincial authorities thus far seem disinclined to give up the millions of dollars generated by its government-run sports lottery that includes NBA wagering.
* Think the University of Wisconsin was pleased with football coach Barry Alvarez? For leading the Badgers to their first-ever Rose Bowl victory, the school rewarded him with a 15-year contract extension. That's a virtually unheard-of vote of confidence in the cyclical world of college sports, but it could be the dawning of a new era in which schools offer secure futures to prevent coaching defections. Alvarez played linebacker at the University of Nebraska, then went to work as a policeman in Lincoln, Neb. Obviously, much changed in his life since then.
* Boston College's long-running battle with its neighbors over the size of the Eagles' football stadium may finally be resolved to almost everyone's satisfaction. To placate those concerned about possible negative impacts of a stadium-expansion project, including the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which approved the plan, the university has extended a number of ``olive branches'' in a conciliatory effort. Included are more than a dozen scholarships for local residents and a neighborhood resource center that will help others in the surrounding community find campus jobs. To alleviate traffic congestion, the school has also agreed to provide season-ticket holders with public-transportation passes. Boston College administrators deem the stadium expansion - from 32,500 to 44,500 seats - necessary in order to fulfill the school's commitment to a quality major-college football program.
* Answer to question above: Water skiing.