Hollywood is in the midst of the Kardashian and Taylor Swift civil war, it’s consistently 90 degrees outside, I got amped about a medium-sized mid-July trade on Monday and finally it crossed my mind to dedicate an entire blog to how PK Subban sang a Johnny Cash song in Nashville.
Kids, that’s how you know it’s the dog days of summer.
When it gets to this point of summer, self-proclaimed sports enthusiasts such as myself are starving for something, anything at all to happen.
With my prayers being anything but answered by the hockey gods, I’ll take a page out of The World Wide Leaders book and debate the most bland subject in all of sporting lore.
Who is the greatest of all time?
Everyone and their grandmother initially would believe it’s Wayne Gretzky and you certainly have a lot of ground to stand on if that’s your thought process. If you combine statistical numbers, ring count and games played, Gretzky certainly looks to be the clear cut winner.
However… yes, you hockey nerds, I’m insinuating that you could be wrong. When it comes to being the greatest of all time, the first category people mentally check off is “how many rings does he have?”. Well, Gretzky may have more than most but most definitely falls short to other legends in that department.
Being the firm believer that I am that in order to be the best at what you do, your legacy must encapsulate more than the regular tasks you’re initially in possession of. Outside of the game, what was your impact? Purely looking at stats isn’t necessarily the best way to declare who had the most lasting impact on the game. Your legacy does that.
Without further adieu, here are my picks for the top 5 greatest of all time.
5. Mario Lemieux: Not many men can say they resurrected a franchise not once but twice. Super Mario can. The Pittsburg Penguins had their last winning season in 1979 and were entertaining less than 7,000 fans a night prior to Mario’s arrival in 1984. It got so bad that talks of relocation even surfaced.
Debuting in 1984, Mario Lemieux, in his first game, pick pocketed Ray Bourque, skated in on Pete Peeters and scored on his first shot of the game.
Talk about first impressions meaning everything.
From there history would follow. Fans flocked to the once decimated Mellon Arena to catch a glimpse of Mario and the supporting cast. While it would take Mario until the 1990-1991 season to capture Pittsburg’s first ever Stanley Cup, it was well worth the back pain he persevered through to make it happen. One year following their first victory, management bulked up again, a bet that paid off in spades as Mario would lift his second Stanley Cup as captain.
Forced into what seemed like an early retirement in 1997 due to a cancer diagnosis, he was enshrined in the hockey hall of fame in 1997.
Mario would triumphantly return midway through the 2000 season. In his first game back, he scored a goal and recorded three points. Mario was back. Leading his team to the Eastern Conference Final, the massive underdogs were defeated in 5 games by the New Jersey Devils.
When it came to money, Pittsburg paid a lot of it to players who probably didn’t deserve it. Thus, crippling their ability to pursue free agents that would improve pace of play, the on ice product suffered dearly because of it.
At the midway point of the 2006 season, Mario made it public that he was calling it quits, again, at age 40. Skating for one season along side the newest Penguin, Sidney Crosby.
Mario bought into a significant portion of the Penguins organization. In the years that followed, he vowed to find a supporting group for Sidney Crosby and just two years later, the Penguins were back in the Stanley Cup Final.
Super Mario ended with 1,723 points, two rings as a player and two more as an owner. On top of that, he showed Sidney Crosby how to lead a team out of the muck and restoring their winning ways. After all, you can’t drag a team out of monogamy without doing it yourself once.
4. Bobby Orr: When you think humbled charismas, how can you not think of Bobby Orr? Regardless of his calm demeanor off the ice, on the ice Orr constantly sacrificed his body blocking shots, taking violent hits and fighting, before helmets and the regulated padding players use today.
Revolutionizing the defensive position, Orr pioneered the end to end rush as a blueliner. Orr was the first defensemen to score 30 and then 40 goals in a season, the first ever player to record 100 assists in a season, but most importantly, he made the Bruins respectable again.
Boston was a dumpster diving team holding on for dear life to the nostalgia that was enshrined decades before. Before Bobby, a Stanley Cup Championship team in Boston was a distant memory. After, it was a reality.
In 1970, Bobby and the high powered Boston Bruins were back in the Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues. On the verge of a sweep, the Blues forced overtime in game four at the Garden. During the intermission, several Bruins player such as Derek Sanderson and Phil Esposito argued over which line would take the ice first. “We knew whoever was on the ice first was going to score”, Esposito recalled. It was Bobby’s line.
The “give and go” between Sanderson and Orr resulted in Bobby scoring the Stanley Cup clinching goal. Subsequently, the picture of the moment remains one of hockey’s most iconic images. “The goal” as it’s referenced by many, is a subject brushed off by Orr. He’s not a fan of the being in the spotlight.
In 1972, the Bruins would recapture the Cup but would fail to repeat, losing to the upstart Flyers the next season. After multiple failed attempts to taste Cup glory, Bobby’s body began to break down due to his style of play. Orr fell out of favor with Don Eagleson and signed a deal with Chicago. Orr would sparingly play portions of two seasons before calling it a career after he couldn’t play through his injuries.
In his wake, Bobby shot a line of hockey-laced adrenaline into New England. In return, generations of New Englanders who grew up with the Celtics supremacy turned their talents to the ice. Thousands of new rinks were built to keep up with the demand, many of which still stand today.
Modern day NHL defensemen have no fear in joining the offensive rush, but that confidence stems specifically with what Bobby engineered.
Bobby recorded 915 points in his career, winning two Stanley Cups and awarded the Norris Trophy as best defensemen 8 times.
3. Gordie Howe: Let’s be clear. Nobody will ever recreate what Gordie Howe accomplished in his illustrious career. More of a mythical being than a man, Howe participated in professional hockey for nearly five decades. Playing 25 seasons as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, he was an integral member of one of hockey’s most dangerous lines simply known as “the production line”. Gordie was special in the sense that he was the most dangerous offensive player on the ice but also the most feared. Engaging in physical altercations so often his first season in the NHL, then coach Jack Adams said to Howe, “I know you can fight, now can you show me you can play hockey?”.
Famously, the term “Gordie Howe hat trick” is awarded to the player who scores a goal, records an assist and engages in a fight during a single hockey game.
Once he decided his days in the NHL were over, he joined the Houston Aeros of the WHA to not only play alongside his sons but to grow the newly formed league. Eventually, the WHA fell through and in 1979, Howe was forced back into the NHL after the Hartford Whalers were adopted into the big league.
At 51, Howe finally decided it was his time to go after the conclusion of the 1979-1980 season. Harmoniously, the 1980 NHL All Star game was held at the newly erected Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings. Despite his age, Howe was voted into the game.
Truly a moment he and everyone in attendance will never forget.
Howe may have been feared on the ice, but off it, he was truly an irreplaceable ambassador for the sport he loved. Taking hours after every game, practice, or charity event to sign autographs for anyone who was willing to wait. Known to be excellent around children, young players dreamt of being just like him.
When it was all over, Howe’s 1850 points is truly astounding when considering he spent 1689 minutes in the penalty box over his career. Four Stanley Cups and 23 all star game appearances later, Howe remained a prominent figure in the hockey world, making his presence felt whenever he was called on.
Well after his playing days were over, Howe suffered a major stroke in 2014, but against all odds, he beat that obstacle like many other things in his career. However, not even two years after the fact, Howe succumbed to his advanced dementia, passing away June 10th, 2016 at the age of 88.
Hockey’s toughest warrior may be gone, but he is definitely tossing elbows with the other hockey gods somewhere.
2. Wayne Gretzky: Maybe I’ll catch some heat for this, maybe you’ll hear me out first, maybe you don’t care. If you didn’t chose the latter, I’m glad you’re still around.
I am a huge Wayne Gretzky guy. I watch his send off at Madison Square Garden and I come dangerously close to shedding a tear every single time. What made Gretzky so special was the hockey world adopted him as their new Gordie Howe right away.
Hockey needs a Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky figure. Just like the NBA needs Jordan or LeBron.
When Gretzky and the rest of the Oilers came over from the WHA merger in 1979-80, they had a lot to prove. Gretzky’s 137 points as a rookie underlined and bolded that the Oilers were legitimate.
By 1983, the Oilers were in the Cup Final against the New York Islanders. The Islanders won the previous three Stanley Cups and got the best of the inexperienced Oilers. In 1984, the Oilers got their revenge on the Islanders. Edmonton would repeat in ’85, make it a three peat in ’87 and double repeat in ’88.
Then it happened.
“The Trade” during the post 1988 Cup winning moments in the locker room, Wayne’s father took him aside and told him that the Oilers planned on trading him. Not taking the rumors seriously, Gretzky carried on in the celebration. As talks heated up between Edmonton and Los Angeles, Wayne became more and more oblivious to what was going on behind the scenes.
Just like that on August 9th, 1988, Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings.
Unbeknownst to Wayne, he set in motion a serious of events that would change America’s outlook on hockey forever.
Season tickets for King’s games flew off the rack. Gretzky took the reigns and helped Los Angeles battle back to the playoffs, knocking off, you guessed it, the Edmonton Oilers in the first round.
While Gretzky never won another Stanley Cup, Edmonton won again in 1990, but since then they have gone cup-less. On the flip side, Los Angeles has captured Lord Stanley’s Cup twice, once in 2012 and again in 2014.
Wayne hung them up in 1999 finishing with 2,894 points, 894 goals, four Stanley Cups along with a ton of credit for sparking the fire in America that since then has seen outrageous growth in the sport. Now more than ever, hockey players from sun belt states are heading to the NHL and Wayne is to thank.
1. Mark Messier: Quintessential captain is the one phrase I can think to describe this man. Mark was very skilled, smart and out competed his opponents each and ever single night. Perfect in all three zones of the rink, which is exactly you want your center to be. To modern day NHL fans, the only reasonable comparison is Jonathan Toews.
I understand the ground in which Mark walked on was made of pure gold. Gretzky, Kurri, Coffee and Fuhr are just some of the names that made up Edmonton’s Dynasty in the 80’s.
But what sets Mark above Gretzky is pure and simple. After everything that happened to Edmonton after Gretzky left Messier fixed, well, as much as he could. Realistically speaking, the sky was falling in Edmonton after Gretzky was traded. Who was in charge of watering the flames? Mark Messier.
Named captain almost immediately after Gretzky’s deal was made, the fate of an entire organization was dropped in his lap. The pressure quadrupled when the Oilers lost to a Wayne Gretzky led Los Angeles Kings team in 1989.
Being the competition driven player Mark is, the Oilers found themselves back in the Cup Final in 1990 against the Boston Bruins. In five games, the Cup was heading back to Edmonton, a thousand pound weight removed from Messier’s shoulders.
In 1991, Messier left Edmonton for New York. By 1994, Messier was the captain of the Rangers. Unsurprisingly, Messier captained a rag tag Ranger team to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks. Prevailing in 7 games, Messier’s Cup winning goal ensured the victory.
It was his 6th Stanley Cup ring.
After his time was over in New York, Messier was the new Captain in Vancouver.
He would return to New York where he would retire as a Ranger in 2004.
Mark ended with 1887 points, 694 goals, 6 Cup rings, captaining three separate teams and the Mark Messier Leadership Award is handed out annually at the NHL awards.
Now, do you buy why I slotted Messier above Gretzky? If not, feel free to tell me why it should have been the other way around.
– Joey Russo (@JoeyRusso12)