August 10, 2022

Hockey's Most Important Players

There is no shortage of great hockey players. But there isn't a lot of important hockey players.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs recently honoured Hall of Fame defenseman Borje Salming, I realized something. He may not have been the greatest player of all time, but his legacy suggests he was arguably the most important.

While a handful of Europeans preceded him, Borje Salming was hockey’s first great European player. By doing so he quickly diminished stereotypes and blazed the trail for more Swedes and all Europeans to come the NHL. The impact was far reaching, and still being explored today.

The influence of the European skill game took hockey from the dark era of 1970s goon hockey to a more skilled game that has evolved into what we have today. The league that was once ruled by hard working, small town Canadian boys was greatly enhanced by influx of European players and their different schools of the sport. The acceptance of the European player has also greatly enhanced hockey’s global status, spurring on generations of new players and fans worldwide. Fans and future stars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean worshipped the likes of Pavel Bure, Jari Kurri, Peter Forsberg and Niklas Lidstrom.

While history may remember others as better players, there are only a handful of figures who can claim an equally important legacy:

Bobby Orr – Although there were other rushing defensemen prior to his arrival in 1966, it is Bobby Orr who is universally recognized for revolutionizing the game. As a defenseman Orr quickly established himself as the world’s most dominant offensive player, and therefore causing everyone to expand the defenseman’s previously single-minded focus on preventing goals.

Wayne Gretzky – The game’s greatest offensive player was also the most recognizable. After he took Hollywood by storm, the game’s growth in the United States was seemingly limitless. Non-traditional markets such as Florida, California, Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia, and the Carolinas not only became homes of NHL teams and Stanley Cup champions, but are now beginning to produce high quality players and true grass roots interest. The Gretzky Effect will continue to be felt for years to come.

Honourable mention: Players: Bobby Hull, Rocket Richard, Ted Lindsay, Carl Brewer

Jacques Plante – Plante literally changed the face of hockey when he perfected and regularly used a protective mask while tending the goal for the Montreal Canadiens back in 1959. Arguably the greatest goalie ever, Plante was a huge innovator in other ways as well. He was the first goalie to wander behind his net and handle the puck on dump ins. With his strong skating skills he often challenged shooters and reduced angles. He was a masterful communicator on the ice, using hand signals to indicate calls such as icing. Nowadays these “Plante-isms” are all taken for granted.

Honourable mention: Goaltenders: Glenn Hall, Patrick Roy, Vladislav Tretiak

Anatoly Tarasov – This early Soviet player garnered far greater success as a coach. His belief in bettering the Canadian game by using better skating, passing, creativity, practice drills, conditioning and athleticism gave rise to the Big Red Machine. In a relatively short period of time the Soviets became the first to challenge and arguably best hockey’s motherland country of Canada. Not only could they beat the Canadians, but they could do it with a stunning artistic and athletic beauty that forced Canadians and the world to rethink how hockey was played. Though Tarasov, a.k.a. “The Grandfather of Soviet Hockey,” never had a chance to directly impact the NHL, and though Soviets weren’t allowed to come west and play in the NHL until the 1990s, the impact of Tarasov’s teachings redefined hockey throughout the 1970s, 1980s and right until this very day.

Viacheslav Fetisov – Arguably the greatest product of Soviet hockey, Slava Fetisov grew from an important cog in the greatest hockey machine in the history of the world until he became the most important piece of that machine. His popularity within his country became the kind of celebrity even superstars here can't imagine. But as western freedoms were slow to arrive in the crumbling communist days of the late 1980s, it was Fetisov, the stereotype of Soviet superiority, who led the revolt to allow Soviet hockey players and people in general to pursue life outside of the Iron Curtain. And his will to stand up to that machine helped free not only his team mates, but the people of his country. His battle revolutionized sports everywhere, and helped bring down the already crumbling walls of communism.

Honourable mention: International: Mike Buckna (Czech/Slovak hockey), John Mariucci (USA Hockey), Fran Rider (women’s hockey)

JGA Creighton – Although he loved to play the evolving game that became known as hockey, he is best remembered for introducing hockey to Canada’s most important city, Montreal, where he set up hockey’s first documented game. He also established a set of rules that forced all the various regional forms of shinny to adopt the same rules throughout the country. The ever evolving game of hockey was “born.”

Frank and Lester Patrick - Hockey’s first royal family featured brothers Frank and Lester Patrick. Though star players in their own right, it was their status as coaches, managers and founders where their greatest contributions can be found. The Patrick’s ruled professional hockey in Western Canada, offering a big league alternative known as the Pacific Coast Hockey Association to the NHA/NHL in the 1910s and early 1920s. Though the league eventually bowed to the financially stronger NHL, the Patrick brothers’ innovations became part of the modern game. They introduced the blue line, the forward pass and the playoff system, a change adopted not only by all of hockey but by many sports around the world. They began using numbers on players' sweaters and in programs to help fans identify the skaters. They allowed the puck to be kicked and allowed goaltenders to fall to the ice to make a save. They were responsible for crediting assists when a goal was scored and they invented the penalty shot.

Honourable mention: Coaches/Builders: Scotty Bowman, Roger Nielson, Billy Reay, Herb Brooks, Bob Johnson, Jacques Lemaire, Conn Smythe, Frank Selke, Bill Hunter, Foster Hewitt


Anonymous said...

No love for Stan Mikita? He not only was the Father of the curved stick, but he was the player who had the star power and tough-guy credentials that made it acceptable to wear a helmet.

That's a true innovator for you.

xrayspecs21 said...

I agree with your assessment of Salming's historical importance.

Thom Mason said...

Hockey was born in Windsor/Halifax NS, not Montreal. James Creighton taught the game when he attended MacGill University in the 1880's. He is the creator of the modern game in my opinion

Anonymous said...

unless you're 130 years old how the hell do you know wher hockey was born? you're just spitting out something you read, kingston montreal they've all got claims too.

Anonymous said...

No Terry Sawchuck or Ken Dryden?

Mike said...

Why does Tretiak get mentioned? What did he innovate? How many games did he play against professionals?

Tretiak is the most overrated player (not just goaltender) of all time. Sorry if I was not impressed by his 3.87 GAA and .884 SV% in the '72 Summit Series. Not to mention the fact that he totally let his team down in the last 3 games, when they needed him most. He was outplayed by Vachon in 1976 as well.

Not to say that he wasn't a decent goalie, but mentioning him among the greats is absurd.

Unknown said...

Uh... Willie O'Ree - the first Black hockey player in the NHL??

Anonymous said...

RE: Mike's Tretiak comment...."Tretiak is the most overrated player (not just goaltender) of all time."

Ironically, that comment itself is overrated hyperbole. Almost every season since the 72 Summit Series (and likely long before) a rookie has been promoted as "the next superstar", only to score 15 points in 2 seasons and wind up playing on the 3rd line of the Hyannisport Presidents. Over time, overhype has become the NHL's "stock & trade". Precious few even approach their hype anymore.

1) This isn't about stats. It's about importance and influence on the game. Just that dorky helmet/face-mask of Tretiak was copied by many NHL goalies in the early 80's, effectively killing the artistic beauty that was 70's goalie masks. That "changing the face of the game" alone merits Honourable Mention beside Jacques Plante. Speaking of "faces", Tretiak WAS the face of Soviet hockey, if only because he was on the ice all the time and had one of the more pronounceable names. Tretiak was the only "individual" on the Soviet "unit-based" team structure.

2) Tretiak only got Honourable Mention in the goalie category. Probably for introducing North Americans to the concept that Russians could play half-decent goal. Considering what the hockey "brain-trust" thought back then about ALL European players, especially goalies, that was actually a MAJOR accomplishment.

The North American bias was WAY stronger then. Back then, everyone was convinced the average NHL minor-leaguer was better than the world's best Euro-players. That kind of thinking still exists today. It's just been "de-nationalized" and National Hockey League-ized. The NHL is automatically "the best", from top to bottom. Were players like Bure, Federov, Mogilny, or Selänne worse players while playing several seasons in European Leagues? Did they suddenly get great in the NHL? No.(Some of their Euro-stats were actually comparable). They were great players wherever they played. Even Toronto. It's our NHL biases that make us think otherwise. And that kind of bias is what Tretiak helped bring into question back in the 70's.

"Are we as great as we think we are?"

Anonymous said...

The Patrick Brothers deserve MAJOR acclaim for their influence on hockey. First, for offering an alternative league (much needed today). Second, for the rules they came up with.

Imagine a hockey game without blue lines & offsides. Today's lazy, money hungry, players would looking to pad their stats by cherry-picking in the other team's end. Games might have 20-30 "5-on-nothings" a game.

And can you even imagine what hockey would be like without a forward pass??? First off, without a forward pass, getting out of your own end would be a risky, never ending, nightmare!

Second, game play would resemble "rugby on ice". Play would probably consist of players skating at walls of defenders and trying to back-pass before hitting them like bowling balls. The closest comparison I can think of was the 70's Super Series. So as to avoid getting smoked by the Soviet's skating and passing abilities, several NHL & WHA teams had 3-4 (or even all 5) players "standing up" at the blue line. To everyone's astonishment, the Soviets almost always chose to "back-pass" until they found an opening rather than dump it in.