(Image by Gypsy Oak, whose other work you can investigate here. Follow him on Twitter @gyspyoak)
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.
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)
The Edmonton Oilers have this morning announced the death of Dave Semenko. He was 59. Wayne Gretzky, who often during their careers together skated to Semenko’s right, contributed a foreword to his teammate’s 1989 autobiography. “When I think of Dave Semenko now, and I often do,” 99 wrote to begin Looking Out For Number One, “I don’t picture the piercing glare that caused other heavyweights to look down or up or anywhere but back at Dave. I remember instead the little smile, the quick wink, and the words, ‘Don’t worry, Gretz.’ And you know what? I never did.”
(Image, from 1984-85: The Want List, hockeymedia)
Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.
These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.
There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.
It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.
Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.
This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).
In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.
To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.
Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.
The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.
And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.
Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.
The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:
Goal Scoring Ability
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”
At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”
All of the nine wrote back.
“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.
“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”
King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.
Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.
I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.
I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.
Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:
Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.
Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”
If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:
Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.
Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:
My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.
Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?
Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:
I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.
Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”
I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.
I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.
Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).
When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:
- Howie Morenz
- Maurice Richard
- Bobby Orr
- Gordie Howe
- Bobby Hull
- Jean Béliveau.
Wayne Gretzky, who turns 56 today, was 14 in 1975. He was a star already on his skates, of course, leading scorer among bantams in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario, and ready for a new stage. In the fall of the year, he joined the Vaughan Nationals of the OHA Metro Junior B league — where he was soon suspended. Not for any on-ice indiscretion: minor-hockey rules decreed that he had to play for the team nearest his home. The Gretzkys went to court to challenge the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association on this, and they won the case, which got Gretzky back into action in time to win recognition as the league’s leading rookie.
It was around that time that this photo of a languidly studious Gretzky was taken. Hard to say exactly when it was, but I’m proposing late ’75 or early ’76 based on nothing more than the fact that the non-academic book young Wayne has at hand here was published in the fall of 1975. My entirely unanchored conjecture is that the book that’s on view here was among the once-and-future-99’s Christmas presents that year.
My Three Hockey Players was Colleen Howe’s account of her 48-year-old husband Gordie’s further hockey adventures in Texas, where he’d taken up with the WHA Aeros in order to play with sons Mark and Marty. “She covers the good and the bitter times,” the book’s own flap blurbage promises, “the long separations, the pressures …. She comments on the cruelty or ice hockey and what should be done about it.”
You can see why it would have been a book to hold Gretzky’s interest. Written with assists from Houston writers Mickey Heskowitz and Kathy Lewis, it’s not exactly a conventional hockey book, focussing in large part on the home life and business of being a superstar as much as the actually hockey-playing of it.
Not long after its fall release, Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot commended My Three Hockey Players for the book’s “clear picture of a warm, strong family relationship, which alone makes it nearly unique in modern literature, and as a bonus it gives you a matchless glimpse of Gordie Howe, a man well worth knowing.”
Proudfoot was also taken by how “delightfully frank” Mrs. Howe was when it came to matters of “romance.” I believe he’s referring here to the chapter that’s focussed on “the hustling females” who plague hockey players while they travel the lonely roads of an NHL season.
“No woman,” Colleen Howe wrote — and I guess teenaged Wayne Gretzky might have read, taking a break from his chemistry assignment, in his basement retreat, under the watchful gaze of Bernie Parent and Chico Resch —
No woman ever made the error of making a pass at Gordie in my presence. But Gordie — and I don’t mean to set him apart — doesn’t have, and never did have, the lover-boy or rounder image. But I’m not naïve. During our marriage he has probably had a good look at someone else. For all I know, he may have had an affair or two. What I do know is how deeply Gordie cares about me. With this I feel secure.
Should I sound more morally indignant or alarmed about the threat that exists out there? I’m sorry. Mary Poppins doesn’t live here any more. This is the real world.
In Gordie Drillon’s dream, he sped and stole pucks. “I dreamt I had on a pair of motorized skates,” he told a teammate the next morning, not long after the Hall-of-Fame right winger joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. “Nobody could get close enough to me to tap me on the heel with a stick. It was a great feeling.” He was equipped with a telescoping stick, too. “I pressed a button in the handle and the blade shot out a couple of feet. It was great for backchecking. I was taking the puck away from everybody.”
Drillon did fine without enhanced equipment — he was a first-team all-star in his heyday, leading the league in scoring in 1938 as a Maple Leaf, and taking the home the Lady Byng, too, as the NHL’s gallantest player.
That doesn’t mean other dreamers, including the NHL itself, haven’t entertained waking designs over the years of stretching sticks and speeding skates.
Actually, I don’t know about the sticks — but enriched skates definitely figure in NHL history.
Maybe you recall Tory Weber. Or, no, probably not. But his big idea might ring a bell, if only because it attracted Wayne Gretzky’s interest and endorsement a few years ago, and looked like it might even be on the verge of a breakthrough onto NHL ice.
Weber was the Calgary inventor who dreamed that heated skate blades would revolutionize hockey, increasing the speed of players and thereby the game they were playing. His Thermablades started to gain traction in the hockey world in 2005. Gretzky was an enthusiastic investor, and so was Harley Hotchkiss, one of the owners of the Calgary Flames and the presiding chairman of the NHL’s board of governors.
Skates glide on a film of water that’s created by pressure. Heated by a tiny lithium battery, Weber’s prototypes increased the layer of lubrication that forms, reducing friction, enhancing smoothness, increasing speed.
Gretzky testified that that its “performance benefits” would boost the game by making it “more exciting to play and watch.” Hotchkiss felt that it could reduce injuries. NHL players who tried Thermablades liked them; Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames was getting ready to wear in his team’s home opener in 2008.
That was before the NHL nixed them. The league’s GMs had their doubts, including concerns about cost and damage that might be done to the ice. They wondered whether Thermablades might make hockey too fast. Without NHL support, Tory Weber’s company struggled. By the summer of 2009, it slid into bankruptcy.
It wasn’t the first time a speedier skate almost accelerated onto NHL ice. Forty years earlier, another inventor had a flash of inspiration not so far removed from Troy Weber’s, and by 1960, Wilfrid Vaillancourt — Monk, to his friends — was on the brink of his breakthrough with the — well, it was either the “lubri-skate” or the “lubra-skate,” depending on the newspaper you were reading back then.
Vaillancourt was a steelworker at this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We know that he later went on to take charge of maintenance projects at the Soo’s International Bridge, a job he kept for 33 years, through to his retirement in 1995. A sizeable idea that came out of that job was a new and efficient mobile scaffolding structure he conceived of that (he said) would slash maintenance costs on big bridges by 70 per cent. Continue reading
Stamp Act: Canada Post launched its newest line of hockey stamps this week with six sticky-backed forwards. “The 2016 NHL® Great Canadian Forwards stamps highlight some of the greatest goal-scorers ever to play in the NHL,” the press release touts, and yes, it is an impressive cadre: Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman, and Sidney Crosby.
Hard to fathom how the crown corporation came up with this particular group. Crosby, of course, is a natural — who wouldn’t want Canada’s own captain on their lettermail? But if it is indeed meant to reflect distinguished goal-getters, then why no Wayne Gretzky, best of them all? He already got on a stamp, of course, in 2000, so maybe that’s all he gets. Same with Gordie Howe and Marcel Dionne, the next ones down the all-time list of high-scoring Canadians. If that’s how the choosing was done, statistically, then, yes, Phil Esposito is deserving. But what about Mike Gartner, who outscored both Messier and Yzerman? Nothing against Lafleur, but he’s way down the list, well below Mario Lemieux and Luc Robitaille. Is that really fair? And what about Dave Andreychuk? How do you think Andreychuk feels knowing that Sittler got in ahead of him having scored 170 fewer career goals? How would you feel, philatelically speaking?