normie himes: kingpin of the new york forwards, with all the aplomb of a regular goalie

If we’re going to talk about Normie Himes, then it’s worth mentioning that he was born in April of 1900, in Galt, Ontario, which is now part of Cambridge. It’s important to say, too, I suppose, that nobody played more games for the long-gone and maybe a little bit, still, lamented New York Americans than Himes did (402). Nobody scored more goals for them, either (106), or piled up more points (219). He was a centreman, except for those rare occasions when he dropped back and helped out in net — just twice, though that would be enough, as it turned out, to see him rated eleventh on the Americans’ all-time list of goaltender games-played.

The elongated Normieis a phrase that would have been familiar to readers of the Brooklyn Daily Eaglein the 1930s, wherein he was also described as the size of a slightly overgrown jockey(he was 5’9”). Articles calling him kingpin of the New York offence also sometimes mention that he was hard to unseat and refer to his dandy shot. For a while there he was, I also see, considered one of the shrewdest and trickiest forwards in professional hockey.

Ronnie Martin and Rabbit McVeigh played on his wings in 1932; in 1934, he often skated on the Amerks’ top line with Bob Gracie and Harry Oliver — though sometimes it was Oliver and Hap Emms.

Here’s the great Harold Burr describing a goal Himes scored in 1931 against Ottawa. Taking a pass from New York defenceman Red Dutton, Himes swooped in on Senators’ goaltender Alec Connell.

Himes’ first slam was fended by the Ottawa goalie, but the puck fell at his feet, so much dead rubber. Now Himes hasn’t kept very much of his hair, but he has all the gray matter saved. He pounced on the loose puck like a hungry cat after an old shoe and the Americans were leading again.

“I wouldn’t trade him for any centre in the league,” claimed Himes’ coach, Eddie Gerard, in 1931, a year in which Howie Morenz, Frank Boucher, and Joe Primeau were centres in the league.

His best season would seem to have been the year before that, 1929-30, when he scored 28 goals and 50 points to lead the Americans in scoring. That was the year he finished sixth in the voting for NHL MVP when Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons ended up carrying off the Hart Memorial Trophy. That same season and the next one too, Himes was runner-up for the Lady Byng (Boucher won both times. He also finished third on the Byng ballot in 1931-32, when Primeau prevailed.

Playing for the lowly Americans, Himes never got near a Stanley Cup: in his nine years with the team, he played in just two playoff games.

The boy in the baseball cap is from a New York profile of Himes 1931, and it’s true that like Aurele Joliat he went mostly hatted throughout his career as an NHLer, either because he was bald-headed (as mentioned in a 1938 dispatch) orbecause as a boy he wanted to be a professional ballplayer and roam the outfield grass (1930) — possibly both apply.

Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox was Himes’ hero, pre-1919 game-fixing scandal. “I want to tell you I felt pretty mean,” Himes once told a reporter, “when the evil news about Joe broke.” Himes played shortstop for a famous old amateur baseball outfit, the Galt Terriers, and he was bright enough as a prospect that a scout for the ballplaying Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League tried to sign him before he opted to to stick to hockey. Himes didn’t think he was good enough with the ball and the bat.

His first stint as a goaltender came by way of an emergency in 1927, back when most NHL teams didn’t carry back-ups, and skaters were sometimes drafted in to take the net when goaltenders were penalized or injured.

Sprague Cleghorn, Battleship Leduc, and Charlie Conacher were others who found themselves employed temporarily in this way in the early years of the NHL. Mostly they went in as they were, without donning proper goaltending gear, and I think that was the case for Himes on this first occasion. It’s often reported to have been a December game against Pittsburgh, but that’s not right: the Americans were in Montreal, where their goaltender, Joe Miller, started off the night watching Canadiens’ very first shot sail over his shoulder in to the net.

Howie Morenz scored that goal and another one as well, and by the third period the score was 4-0 for Montreal. Morenz kept shooting. The Gazette:

The Canadien flash whistled a shot from the left. Miller never saw it. The puck caromed off his shoulder, and struck him over the right cheek just under the eye. Miller toppled over like a log, and had to be carried off the ice. Fighter that he is, the Ottawa lad soon revived in the dressing room and wanted to return to the fray. But Manager “Shorty” Green decided against taking risks and sent Normie Himes into the American net to finish out the game.

Comfortable in their lead, Montreal, it seems, showed mercy — “eased up in their shooting,” the Gazette noted. New York’s temp, meanwhile, looked to be enjoying himself.

Himes warmed up to his strange task and towards the end of the game was blocking shots of all descriptions with the aplomb of a regular goalie.

It’s not clear how many pucks came his way — fewer than ten — but he did repel them all. The score stayed 4-0.

Himes got his second chance in net a year later, when his coach, Tommy Gorman, got into a snit. With this outing, Himes would become the only NHL skater to play an entire game in goal, start to finish.

After helping the New York Rangers win the 1928 Stanley Cup, vagabond Joe Miller landed in Pittsburgh on loan from the Americans. The Pirates had (1) a new owner and (2) an unhappy incumbent in net. Roy Worters, one of the league’s best, was asking for double the $4,000 salary he’d received previously; owner Benny Leonard was offering $5,000. With Miller aboard, Leonard then signed Worters (for considerably less than he was seeking, according to the owner), intending to trade him.

The Americans were interested. Having started the 1928-29 season with Flat Walsh and Jake Forbes sharing duty in the nets, they now offered Miller and a pile of cash, $20,000, in exchange for Worters. Leonard wanted Himes or Johnny Shepard in the deal, so he said he’d go shopping elsewhere.

NHL President Frank Calder had his say in the matter, and it was this: Worters was suspended, and if he were going to play in the NHL, it would be with Pittsburgh. “He will not play with any other club,” Calder declared.

Calder refused to relent even after the Pirates and Americans went ahead with a deal that send Worters to New York in exchange for Miller and the $20,000. So it was that on the night of December 1, 1928, at Toronto’s Arena Gardens, the home team refused to allow the Americans to use Worters, though he was in uniform and took the warm-up, unless New York could prove that Calder had given his blessing.

New York couldn’t. Coach Gorman’s best option at this point was Jake Forbes, who was in the building and ready to go. But starting Forbes wouldn’t sufficiently express Gorman’s displeasure with Calder in the way that putting Himes in would. So Forbes sat out.

Himes did his best on the night — “made a fairly good fist of the goalkeeping job,” said The New York Times. It’s not readily apparent how many shots he stopped, but we do know that there were three did failed to stymie. Toronto Daily Starcolumnist Charlie Querrie said the Americans looked lost, not least because “they missed the said Himes on the forward line.”

The Americans had a game the following day in Detroit and who knows whether Gorman would have called on Himes again if Frank Calder hadn’t lifted the suspension and allowed Worters to begin his New York Americans’ career, which he did in a 2-1 loss. “I have no desire to be hard on anyone,” Calder said that week, “but rules are rules and must be followed.”

So Normie Himes closed his NHL goaltending career showing two appearances, a loss, and a 2.28 average.

Worters would be still be working the Americans’ net in the fall of 1935 when clever but agingwas a phrase that spelled the end of Himes’ NHL career. Himes didn’t even get as far as New York that year: by the end of the team’s October training camp in Oshawa, Ontario, teammate Red Dutton had decided Himes’ time was up. While he was still playing defence for the Americans, Dutton also happened to be coaching the team that year so it meant something when he deemed Himes surplus and gave him his release. One of the best defensive centres and play-makers in the league a few years agois a sentence dating to that period, closely followed by failed to keep pace with the younger playersand left at once for his home at Galt. Himes was 35.

He did sign that year with the New Haven Eagles of the Can-Am league on the understanding that they’d release him if he could secure another NHL gig. He couldn’t, and so stayed on in New Haven, where he eventually took over as the coach.

When Himes married Ruth Connor in 1928, he gave his occupation as “Pro. Hockey + Golf.” He was good on the grass, I guess, and worked at it in the off-season. “When the cry of the puck no longer is heard in the land,” a slightly enigmatic column reported in 1929, “Normie retires to Galt, Ontario, where he is resident professional. He says hockey and golf are very much alike — in theory.” He was later, in practice, manager of Galt’s Riverview Gold Club.

Normie Himes died in 1958, at the age of 58. He was in Kitchener at the time, collapsing after a golf game with an old New York Americans’ teammate, Al Murray.

 

hockey players in hospital beds: bill mosienko

Downcast: Bill Mosienko contemplates his broken foot at Chicago’s Saint Anthony Hospital in October of 1947. Earlier that All-Star week, while his wounded ankle was being tended in Toronto, word had reached him from another hospital in his home town, Winnipeg: his wife had given birth to a son of theirs.

Naturally, there will be some hue and cry to the effect that the National Hockey League should abandon its All-Star Game. Monday night’s exhibition cost the Chicago Black Hawks the services of Bill Mosienko, the right-winger on the their only proficient forward line. The Hawks suffered a sorry blow when Mosienko fractured an ankle as he was bounced by Jimmy Thomson. From this seat, it appears that the injury will be sufficient to assure the Hawks of last place in the NHL standings.

• Jim Coleman, The Globe and Mail, October 15, 1947

Spoiler alert: they didn’t nix the All-Star Game. They kept it going. For the 1947 Chicago Black Hawks, Bill Mosienko’s fractured left ankle raised more immediate concerns. Such as: who, now, was going to play the left wing on Max and Doug Bentley’s line? Also: how could they turn their season around even before it got underway? As Jim Coleman and everybody, the Black Hawks were one of the NHL’s weaker teams. It was ten years since they’d won the Stanley Cup, and nowadays they were in an annual struggle just to make the playoffs. Despite Max Bentley’s having led the NHL in scoring for two straight seasons, the Black Hawks had failed to make the post-season in the spring of ’47.

The All-Star Game was on the Monday in Toronto. While the rest of his teammates aimed for Wednesday’s season opener in Detroit, Mosienko hobbled back to Chicago. How much time was he expected to miss? Five or six weeks, Black Hawks’ president Bill Tobin told reporters. Coach Johnny Gottselig wasn’t so optimistic: he thought his winger was lost for the entire season. “I don’t know how we can replace him,” Gottselig said. “He was one of the league’s standout players.”

Six weeks or all season: either way, the team needed help. The Chicago Tribune reported that Tobin had $100,000 he was willing to spend to upgrade his line-up, starting in goal, where Emile Francis wasn’t quite getting the job done. Problem: Tobin’s rivals didn’t seem all that eager to help him get his spending spree started. Case in point: with Chuck Rayner guarding the New York net, the Rangers had Sugar Jim Henry playing in the minors. Chicago fancied him, but the Rangers wanted Alex Kaleta, the best of their forwards not surnamed Bentley or Mosienko. Preferring a straight cash deal, Tobin asked for a price. The Rangers, Andy Lytle of The Toronto Daily Star wrote, laughed.

In Detroit, Gottselig tried a rookie by the name of Dick Butler alongside the Bentleys. It was a nice story: like them, Butler hailed from Delisle, Saskatchewan. Chapter one wasn’t as fairytale as it might have been. Max Bentley’s two goals on the night were unassisted, and the Black Hawks lost, 4-2. They kept on losing, too, seven games in a row as October became November, and Bill Tobin failed to bring in any new players.

A New York radio station reported that Tobin had a new deal in mind for Sugar Jim Henry: $15,000 plus the Rangers could have Alex Kaleta once the season ended. New York GM Frank Boucher heard that and telephoned Tobin to accept. Tobin backed off: he’d been misquoted, he said.

That was the end of October. Around the same time, Tobin was talking to the Leafs about handing over $25,000 for defenceman Bob Goldham along with $15,000 each for Elywn Morris, another bluelines, and center Gus Bodnar.

A rumour was in the autumn air, too. The Leafs, it went, would surrender an entire forward line plus two defencemen in exchange for Max Bentley. It was Bill Tobin’s turn for mirth. Yes, the Leafs’ Conn Smythe might jokingly have proposed such a deal, Tobin guffawed, but the Bentleys were not for sale. “To satisfy our large following, we need name players,” he explained.

“He wants to give men five charley horses for Max Bentley?” Tobin continued. “Why, I’ll better that offer and give Smythe the whole Kansas City team, with Johnny Gottselig’s false teeth thrown in, for Syl Apps.”

Not quite a quite a week later, Max Bentley was a Toronto Maple Leaf. It wasn’t quite the deal that had been so humorously sketched out previously: in exchange for forwards Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, and Bud Poile along with defenders Goldham and Ernie Dickens, the Leafs also got forward Cy Thomas.

NHL president Clarence Campbell said he was shocked when he heard about the trade. Back in Saskatchewan, Bill Bentley, 74, professed himself to be very unhappy. He didn’t think either one of his talented sons would be able to replicate the success they’d had playing with each other.

Coach Gottselig admitted he’d been reluctant to break up the brother act from Delisle, but said it was inevitable. “We needed fresh blood,” he said, “and no other club wanted any of our players except Max Bentley.”

What changed for Bill Tobin? Edward Burns of The Chicago Tribune reported some of the finer strokes from behind the scenes:

The swap was broached more than a week ago in Toronto when Connie Smythe, managing director of the Leafs, suggested the deal after President Bill Tobin of the Hawks had gone there, screaming for help. Tobin was reported to have said that he wanted to “talk it over with his mother.” At the time the reply was interpreted as a facetious comment by Tobin, who had been waving $100,000, not the deed to Bentley, in his belated effort to strengthen his cellar Hawks. Then he went to Ottawa and conferred with his mother.

Bill Mosienko’s ankle was sufficiently healed to see him return to the Chicago line-up early in December. Despite his and his teammates’ best efforts, the Black Hawks never made it out of the NHL cellar that year. As for Toronto, their Bentley-boosted line-up won another Stanley Cup in the spring of 1948, the second of three in a row, one of four they’d win in five years in the ’40s.

 

 

the cold of old

Breaking news from NBC Sports this afternoon: “It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa.”

Montreal Canadiens are in town to meet the Senators en plein air at Lansdowne Park, and, yes, looks like the freeze will be on. “It’s supposed to be mainly clear,” NBC’s Joey Alfieri reports. “It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.”

In Canadian, that’s minus-13 gusting to minus-20. In other words, there will be lots more of this weathery talk ahead of and on through its three periods. Here’s Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan talking to Ian Mendes of TSN Radio to get in the mood:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head. It sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

Bandying extreme temperatures is a frigid staple of hockey literature, of course. Was it really minus-50 all through Gordie Howe’s Saskatchewan childhood as he struggled to become the greatest of all the hockey greats? The tales you come across paging though the past aren’t entirely tall — these warming times notwithstanding, Canadian winters are and have been consistently cold — but at the same time, would we agree that strict scientific rigor isn’t always a guiding feature?

I like Roy MacGregor’s way of putting it. This is in Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (2011), with MacGregor recounting Bryan Trottier’s childhood in the wintry west:

Bryan, as the verifiable myth goes, would be out even at forty below in the Saskatchewan winters, playing long into the night with the only two opponents he could recruit, his father and the family’s black-and-white border collie, Rowdy.

I had a good time writing about lowly hockey temperatures in my book Puckstruck, but I really only scratched the surface.

Pierre Turgeon has talked about playing 9-to-5 Saturday pond hockey as a boy in Rouyn. “It could be minus-30 outside, and we didn’t have any school. But we would be playing hockey outside. It didn’t make any sense.”

Before he made his coaching name standing in back of NHL benches, Dick Irvin was a star on the ice. Recalling his Manitoba roots in 1917, he advised anyone who hoped to follow in his skates to bundle up and get outdoors. “Corner lot hockey with the thermometer at 40 below zero is the way the Winnipeg youth learns hockey.”

Art Chapman was another Winnipegger, though he had a slightly different trajectory. Chapman, who played centre for Boston and the New York Americans through the 1930s, didn’t dispute the temperature, but instead of the lot, he’d head to the Red River, a block-a-half from his front door. “It used to freeze over in November,” he recalled in 1950, “and I can remember one year when it didn’t thaw until May 24th.”

Johnny Bower has said how, growing up in Saskatchewan, his father thought that hockey was too dangerous a game for him. “He told me to go to school, that’s all,” Bower told Stan Fischler. “But I’d do my homework and then go out in the 45- and 50-degree below zero weather and play goal. It’s way cold in Prince Albert.”

Have we, as Canadians, enjoyed the game of wow-the-non-Canadian-with-proofs-of-our-rugged-Canadianness a little more than we should have over the years? Maybe so.

Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle played along in 1938 with a profile of Canadiens winger Toe Blake. “Tireless, he loves to barge through defenses the hard way,” Parrott wrote, “jumping the forest of sticks he finds in his way.”

His ceaseless efforts are a hold-over from early hockey days at Coniston, Ontario, where the temperature continually flirted with 20, 30, 40 below. When he says he lived on skates in those high school days, he means it.

“The principal in our high school was a kind-hearted fellow,” Toe explained. “And he saved us lads time changing to and from our skates at recess by allowing us to keep them on during classes. I guess he had done that for years before, too, because the old floors were pretty well sliced up.”

Eric Whitehead’s books about hockey titans of old are filled with amazing accounts of the turbulence of early times. In The Patricks (1980), he recalled a game from the legendary first season of the National Hockey Association when, in February of 1910, the Renfrew Creamery Kings paid a visit to Haileybury. The visitors had Newsy Lalonde, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Cyclone Taylor in the line-up, with Art Ross leading the home team.

To Frank Patrick’s memory, the temperature was minus-25, with a bitter wind blowing much colder.

We had to wear mittens to keep our hands from dropping off, and Art Ross, the Haileybury captain, wore a pair of fur gloves and a woolen toque rolled down over his face with peep-holes cut out for the eyes. He looked like the very devil himself, and he played as mean as he looked.

A “funny” incident:

Art went after Lester with his stick, clubbed him on the jaw and Lester retaliated. Art — I think he was just looing for a good scrap just to keep from freezing to death — backed off, took off his gloves and tossed them onto the ice. He made a few gestures with his fists and then suddenly turned and scrambled to retrieve his gloves and get them back on again. Lester burst out laughing, and the fight was called off. Called on account of cold.

Whitehead notes that three players were treated for frostbite that night, with Haileybury’s Fred Povey suffering so severely that doctors worried he’s lose an ear. (He kept it.) Frank Patrick:

The thing that always amazed me was how the fans stayed through games like this, or that they came in the first place, even though they were bundled in rugs and blankets. It struck me at times that the fans were a hardier breed than the players they watched. At least we could keep moving.

Which leads us back, finally, to Ottawa.

Frank Boucher spins a fine story from the days of icy yore in the memoir he wrote with Trent Frayne, When The Rangers Were Young (1973). Before he got to New York, Boucher made his NHL debut in 1921 with his hometown team, Ottawa’s original Senators.

As a 20-year-old rookie on a powerhouse team — the defending NHL champions, no less — Boucher wasn’t getting a lot of ice-time. Along with 18-year-old King Clancy and a pair of veteran journeymen, Leth Graham and Billy Bell, Boucher was spending much of his inaugural season as a bench-bound freezing spare in old, unheated arenas.

We grew so disenchanted sitting there, shivering, our teeth chattering, and our feet numb, that we asked Tommy Gorman, the club’s manager, to let us stay in the dressing room. He said no, he never knew when he might need one of us. Clancy then suggested that Gorman install a system of bells in the dressing room whereby he could signal a player if he needed him — one ring Clancy, two for me, and so on. This Gorman did. And we sat inside night after night playing a card game called Five Hundred, and the bell never rang.

Until it did. Ottawa coach Pete Green wanted King Clancy. But Clancy didn’t appear. The coach rang again. No answer. So he called Graham instead.

“Where the hell is Clancy?” the coach demanded when Leth appeared.

“He couldn’t come,” Leth said. “He took his skates off and has his feet in the furnace. That room is damn cold tonight, Pete.”

(Top image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/ e011176174)

spillway

Homestretch: Defenceman Ching Johnson lies down on the job during a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden in January of 1934. The home team beat Montreal’s Maroons on the night on the strength of Frank Boucher’s two goals. Still on their feet are Rangers (right) Ott Heller and (possibly) Murray Murdoch. Unless, maybe, is it Butch Keeling?

on the road to new york: the rangers’ first training camp, 1926

In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.

Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.

“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.

Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.

The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.

Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”

“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”

But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.

“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.

famed for the prize apples he grows

Brew Booster: Frank Boucher was nearing the end of his coaching tenure with the New York Rangers in 1948 when he went to bat for America’s ancient lager. His best year on the bench was his first, 1939-40, when he steered the Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship. The team struggled through the war years after that, mostly missing out on the playoffs. They did make it back to the post-season in ’48, though they ended up losing in the semi-finals to Detroit.

 

the quondam kid

Sidney Crosby was home in Nova Scotia today, his 30th birthday. He spent the day showing the Stanley Cup around, joining a parade through Halifax first before travelling up to Rimouski, in Quebec, where he played his junior hockey, for a quick how-do. Asked this week about the ageing he’s undergoing, Crosby dutifully answered that 30 is “just a number.” Facing the inevitable follow-up — does he have any grey hairs? — the erstwhile Kid is said to have smiled.

Playing the numbers game isn’t hard with Crosby. After 12 exceptional NHL seasons, the man has plenty to recommend him, even if you agree to a birthday exemption on playing up the troubling tally of four confirmed concussions. Totted up his first 1,000 points in 757 games! Won three Stanley Cups! Two Conn Smythes! Collected manifold Art Rosses, Rocket Richards, Lionel Conachers, Lester B. Pearsons, Baz Bastiens! Not to mention Olympics and World Cups! The full list of notable statistics, trophies, and accolades runs much longer, of course. And for those who’d rather advance into the thickets of hockey analytics, help yourself.

If Crosby’s dominance of the moment isn’t in doubt, this latest Stanley Cup has fuelled an increase in discussions of the longer-term and more subjective question of where Crosby fits into the pantheon of all-time greats.

Can Crosby be considered one of the top five players of all time? I think we can all agree that if you posed the question to Crosby himself, he’d let it expire in small talk if not outright silence. And why not? Debates about the best of the best across the eras are all in good fun, causing no harm, I guess, but that doesn’t mean they’re not more or less ridiculous, given how short our memories are. Where once there were those who could (at least in theory) be counted on to judge the whole spectrum of NHL hockey talent because they’d personally witnessed the league’s entire history, there’s no-one, today, who has the personal experience to argue the merits of Howie Morenz over Mario Lemieux’s. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does help explain why, earlier this year, when the NHL paraded its list of 100 Greatest, the absence of players like Frank Nighbor, Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Boucher, and Aurèle Joliat (among many antique others) was barely noted let alone pilloried.

That doesn’t mean the top-five debate won’t go on, of course. In June, Rick Carpiniello got in on it at MSG Networks by declaring his leading men (in order): Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, and Gordie Howe.

And number 87? Whereas (Carpiniello wrote) “Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner,” he wasn’t ready yet to add his name to the uppermost echelon. Crosby is going to have to work for it, he says, over a number of years if he wants to supplant Mark Messier, the subject of a 1999 biography of Carpiniello’s called Steel On Ice.

Over at Sports Illustrated, Colin Fleming declared that Crosby has now “stormed the citadel of the top ten.”

We all know the top four: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Put them in what order you wish, but have Gretzky first. After that, in no particular order, I’d stick in Bourque, Sawchuk, Béliveau, Harvey, Roy, and now Crosby. What’s more, I’m not sure that Crosby isn’t fifth. He’s the best player since Lemieux, truly generational. He’s not merely the best player since Super Mario: it’s not even close.

“I’d put Sidney Crosby right there at number five,” Brian Boucher was saying in June as the Penguins wrapped up their second straight Cup. “We’re watching greatness,” said the former NHL goaltender, now an NBC analyst. “For people to hate on it, I get it, because maybe you’re not a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if you’re a fan of watching true greatness, to me, that’s it.”

Back in January, during the festivities leading up to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the NHL put together a press conference where Gretzky, Orr, and Lemieux shared a stage where they were lightly questioned by a parcel of reporters. As The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger reported part of that went like this:

“Is the greatest hockey player of all time at this podium?” we wanted to know.

“No,” said Gretzky.

Then who?

The consensus of all three: Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

You can debate their answer. They weren’t about to.

Heck, if these three weren’t qualified to answer this, who then?

“Listen, we talk about this all the time,” Gretzky said. “That’s what makes sports great, and that’s what makes hockey wonderful. I think we’re all in pretty much agreement that Gordie was pretty special. These two guys here were pretty special, also. We all had so much respect for what Gordie did and what he accomplished that it’s not a bad thing to be named in the Top 100 behind a guy like Gordie Howe. I think we all feel the same way.”

“Absolutely,” added Orr. “Gordie is in my mind the best that ever played the game. 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.

“But no, Gordie was a special player and a special man in my mind, and I think the three of us agree that he was the best player ever.”

Over to you, Mario.

“Absolutely,” Lemieux said. “I agree with these guys that he was a special player. He could play any way that you wanted out there and a great goal scorer; tough, as we all know, and always taking care of business. But he was truly a great ambassador for the game. He loved the game. He played until he was 51 years old, and that’s pretty rare these days except for Jagr, my buddy.”

Asked for an opinion on the best player still on skates, all three men agreed that it’s Crosby.

“I think his work ethic, first of all,” said Lemieux, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Crosby’s one-time landlord. “He’s the hardest — just like Wayne was when he played, he’s the hardest working guy out there, whether it’s at practice or a three-on-three game at practice, he wants to win, he wants to be the best.”

Added Gretzky: “I agree with Mario, everything he said. He’s the best player in the game. He’s earned that mantle, and his work ethic is as good or better than anybody in hockey.

“We encourage, and I know Bobby is very close to Connor (McDavid), that that’s the guy that he’s chasing, and Connor sees him in his vision, and that’s what makes the game wonderful is that you want to be as good as the best player.

“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes.”

(Image courtesy of Gypsy Oak, whose luminous work you can find here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)