NHL's all-time bests: Durability sets Howe and Gretzky apart
Topping the list: The Greatest (No. 2) and Mr. Hockey (No. 1).
It’s always fun to debate who's the best of all time in any sport.
And since the sport we deal with here is hockey, this is my – repeat MY – best 10 players in NHL history.
1. Gordie Howe – Now, there are four players in history who many of those most knowledgeable agree stand above everyone else who has ever played the game. They are Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr. And, frankly, I think it’s an impossible task to rank those four. I won’t disagree with whatever order anyone comes up with.
But I had to come up with some sort of way to separate them. And the first was durability.
Both Howe and Gretzky were extremely healthy over their NHL careers. Howe played 26 NHL seasons and is the all-time leader with 1,767 games played.He missed 20 or more games in a season only once - 1948-49. Gretzky played 20 seasons (1,487 games) and also missed 20 or more games only once in a season.
It’s not the fault of Lemieux and Orr that they were beset by injuries – and illness, in Lemieux’s case (non-Hodgkins disease lymphoma). For whatever reason, they were unable to play for long stretches throughout their careers. Orr’s was tragically cut short by injuries after only 12 seasons and he played a combined total of 36 games over his last three.
Unfortunately, part of being the greatest of all time is the ability to consistently show up.
And even though Gretzky’s numbers dwarf Howe’s – and everyone else’s, for that matter – I picked Howe as No. 1 because he was the better all-around player. He could do it all: Shoot, pass, score, skate, stickhandle, backcheck, hit and fight. He even played defense at times with the Red Wings during the early and mid-1960s.
There was a reason Howe was nicknamed “Mr. Hockey.”
2. Wayne Gretzky – The most offensively dominant player to ever skate in the NHL, Gretzky obliterated the accepted standards of statistical excellence through his first 12 NHL seasons. And after missing 39 games in 1992-93, he posted such “mere mortal” totals as 121, 130, 102, 97 and 90 points in five of his last seven seasons.
Gretzky’s total of 1,963 career assists is more than the 1,921 total points of the NHL’s second all-time leading scorer, Jaromir Jagr.
3. Mario Lemieux – If not for his chronic back problems and cancer, Lemieux would have given Gretzky a run for his money statistically. Lemieux could do everything Gretzky could but was far bigger (6-4, 230 pounds, built like a tight end in his prime) and more physically dominant.
As it was, Lemieux had four seasons of at least 160 points in a career that spanned 21 years, but in which he missed four complete seasons and played in only 915 games in the 16 seasons he was active, an average of less than 60 games per season. But he still scored 690 goals, had 1,723 points and won six Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer.
4. Bobby Orr – He simply changed the game as far as defensemen are concerned. Before Orr, defensemen rarely scored 40 points in a season. But Orr topped 100 points in six straight seasons and was such a great skater that he was almost always able to get back on defense when necessary. Orr won an all-time record of eight Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman. He played only 657 career games, which is heartbreaking … for all of us.
5. Bobby Hull – A force of nature on the ice. Big, strong and fast with one of the greatest slap shots of all time. His specialty was scoring goals, but he could – and did – do it all on the ice.
6. Jean Beliveau – Considered one of the classiest and most elegant NHL players, Beliveau was a fierce competitor. He was a greatly skilled skater, stickhandler and shooter, who also used his 6-3, 205-pound frame to full effect when necessary. He won 10 Stanley Cups as a player.
7. Martin Brodeur – He owns the NHL career records for wins and shutouts by a goalie and is in a group with Terry Sawchuk, Patrick Roy, Dominic Hasek and Jacques Plante as the greatest goalies of all time. He used every technique – stand-up, crouch, butterfly, etc. – when necessary and was one of the greatest puck-handling goalies ever.
8. Maurice Richard – An explosive pure goal scorer, “The Rocket” held the career goal-scoring record (544) before Howe broke it in the early '60s. He brought an unmatched passion to the game.
9. Nicklas Lidstrom – Ridiculously, consistently effective and efficient. Hardly ever made a mistake on the ice. And you never noticed him, unless he was doing something in the offensive zone. But seven Norris Trophies says all that’s necessary to say.
10. Patrick Roy – One of the greatest big-game goalies in the game’s history. Otherwise, his record and flair spoke for themselves.