October 13, 2006

Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux

With all the talk of the rise of hockey’s new era, with the soon to be epic battle of Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin already topping the card, it is pretty easy to day dream about the last great hockey duel – Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux.

For much of my youth, that comparison always was there. It was impossible to avoid. For a decade there had been only two choices. And you had to choose.

Growing up on Canada’s west coast, I was born to be a Gretzky fan, even though I cheered on the sad-sack hometown Vancouver Canucks. It was impossible to not witness the glory years of the Edmonton Oilers, though. Always on TV in the west, I cheered on The Great One more than any other player in my lifetime. I continued to enthusiastically cheer him on during the Hollywood years, hoping against fate that he could capture another Stanley Cup down there. And of course, time and again he brought glory to our country.

You could definitely suggest that the reason that I, as an impressionable youngster, became the rabid hockey fan I am today is Wayne Gretzky.

Sadly, I never gave Mario Lemieux the same chance.

Part of it is due to the time zone differences and not having access to many Penguins games on TV back in those days, but largely it was because I was a Gretzky fan.

Right or wrong, most definitely wrong with the hindsight of adulthood, that’s just the way it was. As much as you secretly appreciated both, a true fan had to choose one or the other.

I chose Gretzky, largely because of west coast bias and the fact he was long established before this distant easterner who dared to challenge his greatness arrived on the scene. But I also chose Gretzky because he was personable. You could not help but want the guy at the top of hockey’s food chain, setting the standards not only for future hockey stars, but your children and for yourself.

For much of Lemieux’s career, he was dubbed as cold, indifferent and aloof, although it turned out he was just misunderstood. Later in his career he finally became the charming prince everyone wants the top player in hockey to be, the impossible standard that Gretzky set.

My attitude towards Mario Lemieux changed briefly after leading the nation to victory at the Canada Cup in 1987 and again after his amazing comeback from a difficult bout with cancer. My mindset on Lemieux had changed, but somehow it was always more about appreciation of him than love for him, and more respect for his abilities than admiration for his ways.

As a result, I ended up not truly experiencing Mario Lemieux’s greatness, a greatness that surpassed Gretzky’s. I saw the highlights on TV, and the two Stanley Cup finals on CBC, but I missed so much. The guy battled through chronic back injuries, and cancer for Christ’s sake, and I never warmed up to him because I was a Gretzky guy.

So heed my advice, hockey fans. While I watched Gretzky play hockey as if he were conducting his orchestra, I missed Lemieux’s one man band of equally epic shinny music. Don’t be silly enough to think you must choose between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Take in everything they have to offer. Don’t just appreciate them, admire them.

Share Your Memories of Gretzky vs. Lemieux using the comments section below!

52 comments:

Tyler said...

Hey, Sweet comparison and congrats on getting picked up by Paul over at Kukla's Korner!
I'm sure you received a huge traffic spike today.
Anyway, I am doing an article on Phil Esposito tomorrow at NHL Digest and I would love it if you would post your thoughts in a comment.
Thanks and have a great weekend.
Ty

Brendan said...

Very eloquently put. One of the best comparisons I've ever read. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

hey... i know you tell me to not choose, but i just think Crosby is a baby. Ovechkin for life. All though I am a Devil fan, I have appreciation for Ovechkin, but not Crosby because whenever he gets hit or whenever he thinks something is a penalty, then he cries to the ref! GO DEVILS!!


(and ovechkin)

Jacob said...

I felt exactly like you and I also see Crosby and Ovechkin as gifts to hockey - not a debate. I enjoyed this trip down memory lane.

Anonymous said...

Gretzky was like Crosby once ...flopping, diving to get the referee's attention ...He grew out of it !! Give the Kid a chance, he just turned 20 !! Again, the suggestion was not to choose a side, but I can't help from doing it ! I think the Kid is the real deal as Ovechkin will be a Selanne type of player ...GREAT, but not quite EXCEPTIONAL ..Anyhow, both are in the eastern conference so I'll have the privilege to watch em both !!

Anonymous said...

I think that was a great comparison but iits hard not to compare Crosby and Ovechkin. Crosby leads the PENGUINS by ovechkin is just a scoring guy not a leader.

Anonymous said...

Wayne is the greatest athlete of all time and a true ambassador to his sport. No one in the history of any sport has done as much or continue to do what this man does for hockey. Mario began his career as a hold out which put me off. There are thousands of kids out there who sacrifice everything along with their parents just to get a shot at the NHL and he decides he is above the game. Eric Lindros learned well and took self importance to the next level.
Mario is awesome, undeniably and saved a franchise. Gretzky was great while saving and growing an entire professional sport. Gretzky vs Lemieux there is no contest. They retired #66 in Pittsburgh they retired #99 from the league. No other athlete in the history of the world can claim that. The rivalry should be Gretzky versus Jesus. Hopefully one day they will both make a comeback.
Scott
Calgary

gay the great said...

There is no real yway to say who is better really. Wayne scored a zillion goals and assists, but on the oilers he also had great wingers, so alot of the glory is to be spred out. Mario had jagr..that was pretty much it. however marios numbers wernt as great AND when wayne went to LA (a really crappy team) he was STILL the scoring point leader.

and with crosby over ovechkin, ovechkin scores a tone of goals, he just got his 40th. crosby has like, one goal, but 80 assists (an overexageration but you get my point) but also, crosby has great team mates and ovechkin has...no one.

Anonymous said...

Hey,
I am from Pittsburgh and priveledged to have seen mario play the game, he was incredible to watch,he had more power than Gretzky, just as fast and a better shot.What kept Mario from the top of the record books was his health. Gretzky played in 500 more games than lemieux giving the great one the statistical victory. That said, 100 years from now the stats are all that will matter. Sorry la magnifique

lextune said...

Wayne and Mario were so completely different. The uncanny playmaking of Wayne seem to stem from his ability to see into the future. Wayne knew where everyone, and the puck, was; and they were all going to be. Interestingly, it was this same ability that seemed to make it impossible to "line him up" for a monster hit. Something that everyone who called him "protected", failed to understand. He was elusive.

Mario on the other hand, came right at you and just outdid you. If it took strength, either physical or skating strength, fine, he was better than everyone at that. If it took skating finesse that was fine too, he was better than everyone at that as well. Stick handling wizardry? Yeah, he was the best. Pure shooting sniper powers? No problem. Some "Gretzkyesque" playmaking needed? That was no problem either. Every conceivable set of hockey skills was not only his at the highest possible level, but it all seemed rather easy to him (hence the "lazy" label he had for a time). I don't think anyone can argue that if Lemieux had been healthier many, if not most, of Gretzky's records would have fallen (Gretzky himself has said as much). But that is a very big "if". And health is, of course, a big part of any contact sport. So Gretzky has to be seen as the greatest player of all time.

All that being said, those of us who were lucky enough to live the age of Gretzky and Lemieux can just be happy to have seen them both.

lilfergie21 said...

im-from-pittsburgh-and-its-bullshit-when-they-say-wayne-had-more-help-than-mario.look-at-his-list-of-help.
4th-all-time-Ron-Francis-1798pts
7th-all-time-Mario-Lemieux-1723pts
9th-all-time-Jaromir-Jagr-1599pts
12th-all-time-Paul-Coffey-1531pts
14th-all-time-Bryan-Trottier-1425pts
19th-all-time-Luc-Robatille-1394pts
21st-all-time-Mark-Recchi-1381pts

gretzky-had-messier-coffey-kurri-and-damphfousse-lemieux-had-three-times-the-help-he-did

Anonymous said...

Some excellent points on the timeless subject of comparison of ultimate hockey greatness.

Like most hockey fans who were lucky enough to experience the era of Wayne and Mario, I have utmost respect for each of them, as unbelievably gifted athletes and leaders whose contributions to sport and society are the qualities of genuine role models.

As a lifelong hockey fan and also a lover of classical music, in my mind the parallel to Wayne and Mario was Mozart and Beethoven. Each being magnificent beyond comparison to all others, with overlapping careers although not at their peaks at the same time. Thinking of this analogy, in my mind I believe that Wayne and Mario may prove to be the greatest over a time span of several centuries (just as Mozart and Beethoven have remained the unsurpassed greatest in the field of classical music).

Part of this is because they performed in an era of hockey dominated by offense. And this was maybe the greatest legacy of Gretzky. Gretzky and the Oilers proved that, with truly exceptional talent and a coach who was bold enough to defy conventional wisdom, an all-out scoring machine could win championships.

In the era of free agency and salary caps, the greater parity that results means that it is very unlikely for any team to have such depth of scoring talent as either Wayne's Oilers or Mario's Penguins. The game has therefor regressed to be dominated again by defensive systems, which is much easier to teach and win championships with.

So it seems more likely than before that most of Gretzky's amazing scoring records may never be broken. Think about what it would take for them to be broken. It would need another player who was as much greater than the rest of his team mates and opponents as Gretzky was; and a reversal to an era based on pure offense; plus a team of similar greatness (and youth) as the Oilers had, and a coach who designed the team around this even though defense usually wins championships. And Gretzky's greatest records are his career records, which require not only such excellence but amazing ability to minimize injury despite being prime target for twenty years.

Only two players transformed the way the game was played: Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky; each was so exceptional that the teams built around them raise pure offense to levels not previously seen or believed possible. Perhaps Orr was even more amazing, especially as a defenseman winning the scoring title (twice) and setting the incredible plus-minus record of +121. But Wayne's durability and leadership qualities give him the edge.

Mario was probably more gifted than Wayne, and certainly had the huge advantages of size and reach. His comebacks from serious illness and chronic back injuries were almost unbelievable.

Would Mario have changed the game if his career had preceded Wayne's? That's impossible to say, but it seems unlikely. Indeed, if the Islanders "drive for five" had knocked off the Oilers in 1984 (as they had in 1983), it's very likely that the Oiler team would have been broken up, in order to add more defensive balance, in the belief that pure offense could not win championships.

Finally, in my opinion, the greatest series and talent show was the Canada Cup of 1987. All three games were one-goal games, with the Russians winning the first. Gretzky was the established leader in his prime; Mario was the rising star and played on Wayne's line. Gretzky was the master playmaker and Mario the sharp shooter; the combo was pure magic, almost certainly the best ever. Mario also pointed to this experience of learning from Wayne what it takes to be champion.

Anonymous said...

Neither one. Bobby Orr. The guy that revolutionized the sport and ushered the modern era.

But, I place 66 ahead of 99. He had the ability to skate through defense, an incredible shot, and he wasn't afraid to get rough when he needed to be play a physical game. That can't be said for Gretzky....not at all. Had Mario been healthy, he may have broken Gretzky's records.

Gretzky's significance (other than all-time point leader) was how well he represented the game during the ESPN/Mass advertising era. This intense spotlight was not available to athletes before then.

1. Orr
2. Lemieux
3. Howe
4. Gretzky

mr trumo said...

To anonymous,

The list of players that you say Mario played with is accurate, but for how long were each of them on Mario's team? And, how many of them were on the team at the same time. Gretzky's team was loaded with stars, and Mario's team had stars added to it and taken away. His team was never loaded with stars like Gretzky's. Look what Mario Lemieux did for Rob Brown. When he played with Mario he had 239 points in three years. He only scored 438 points total in his entire 19 year career and that includes nhl, ihl, ahl, and whl! Mario Lemieux was the best hockey player to ever put on the skates. Wayne Gretzky was great, Mario was magnificent.

twinboys26 said...

Lemieux was the best player there ever was and ever will be. Just imagine the numbers he could have put up without battling through all those injuries that led to his early retirement, and eventual return. No way in hell Gretzky could have put up the numbers Lemieux did with the same problems Lemieux went through. Lemieux was the most gifted goal scorer of all time and it was an absolute pleasure watching him through all those years.

RCheli said...

The difference between Gretzky and Lemieux was their early years; Wayne had an incredible desire and drive to win, and it seems like Lemieux only got that as he matured. But when he did get that taste for winning -- look out.

The biggest knock against Lemieux was injuries -- especially the back problems that dogged him for most of his career and then the Hodgkin's disease that took away more than a season (cumulatively, when you consider the games he missed when on chemotherapy and the season after when anemia took him down).

There is no doubt that Gretzky had the better career, of course. But Lemieux was the better talent.

Anonymous said...

who ever said lemieux had more help than gretzky obviously never watched a game of hockey in the 1980's. Oilers were a dynasty pens could have only dreamed of being. Lemieux was more talented but injuries diminished what could have been the greatest career of any player ever.

Joe Pelletier said...

It is generally agreed that Gretzky had a better supporting staff than Lemieux.

That being said, I think Lemieux supporters under appreciate the staff Lemieux did have.

Paul Coffey was an essential key to both 99 and 66's success.

Ron Francis was one of the game's greatest centers, not unlike Mark Messier in every regard other than stature.

Jaromir Jagr was one of the top 10 offensive players in hockey history

Bryan Trottier was a great veteran presence.

Rick Tocchet and Kevin Stevens were great physical presences who admittedly benefited offensively from Mario.

A young Mark Recchi was emerging as a great two way player.

Lemieux's support cast was pretty damn good.

Anonymous said...

People forget Mario was drafted on the worst team in the league as most #1 picks usually do, while Gretz lucked out and was sold to the Oilers from the folded WHA's Indiana Pacers. Infact, the NHL had a hand in ensuring the best player in the world at that time went to the best possible team. The only reason Gretz played there was because it was the only league that accepted under 18 players. It took years for Mario to build up, including the Pens team around him. Gretz only needed 2-3 years for him and the Oilers to form their dynasty. Gretzky on the worst team in the league and Lemieux on the Oilers, I'm sure the story would have unfolded a lot differently... it's scary for Mario to even come so close to Gretzky numbers despite the huge advantage Wayne had...

Anonymous said...

Like a few lucky souls above, I've had the pleasure of growing up watching both play. With today's faster NHL with better defense and goaltending, Gretzky would get only 2/3 of his points. Watching back his highlight goals on youtube, reminded me of how he scores most of his goals. They are only as hard as bantum shots and the sucky goalies with the tiny shin-pads back then just let them squeak by. 2 out of those 3 goals of his, some from the blueline would for sure be stopped in the NHL today. But Mario's prime came at a time when the neutral zone trap was becoming a mastered art, clutching and grabbing rising at an all-time high, he had to work hard for his goals, would still maintain all the points that he got even with today's faster, defensive NHL.

Gretzky was pretty damn good but got lucky playing at the right place and the right time on the right team, he would be something more of a "Paul Kariya" if playing today in his prime.

I have one more thing to say... all our opinions are mostly from hockey fans, and a few possible amatuer hockey players who may know a thing or two about the game like myself... but how about the opinions of people who know the most - the players and coaches themselves. It's been widely known that Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach ever, Mark Messier, the second leading points leader ever, and even Wayne Gretzky himself have said Mario Lemieux was probably the most gifted and talented hockey player ever to lace up a pair of skates. Like some mentioned above, Gretzky even said himself Mario would have probably beat his records if it weren't for his ailing health...

Wayne Gretzky "wins". But Mario Lemieux was better, it's that simple.

Jesse said...

Wayne Gretzky has more assists than anyone else in NHL history has points. Argument over.

Brody said...

I think RCheli said it best:

There is no doubt that Gretzky had the better career, of course. But Lemieux was the better talent.

Anonymous said...

yo! if y'all think a good team don't help out, how come mario beat gretzky in his prime when 99 left da oilers for da kings?! and how come the oilers win another cup WITHOUT gretzky when he goes to the kings?! food for thought. #66=#1! peace out

Anonymous said...

That's Indiana "Racers", not "Pacers" Gretzky was sold from (wrong sport lol). But that's right, Gretzky was never an NHL "rookie" and couldn't qualify for rookie of the year honors due to his previous pro career as a 17 year old despite a 137pt "rookie" campaign.

Mario wasn't just drafted #1 on the worst team in the league in 1984. He was drafted on what was probably the crappiest NHL team of all time! Apart from Warren Young, Doug Shedden or Mike Bullard, the rest of the 84 pens could have easily been career minor leaguers who wouldn't even dream of an NHL career if it weren't for the expansion that happened in the late 70's early 80's... Mario turned a few of those guys like Rob Brown into stars later on.

And that's what people also forget in this debate. A HUGE factor was Gretzky's timing and the expansion. The NHL underwent major expansion when Gretzky started out, especially when the WHA folded. This totally diluted the talent pool of the NHL for a few years. Which allowed him and the Oilers to dominate until it balanced itself out again. Mario's prime was the nasty clutching/grabbing "garage league" phase of the late 80's, early 90's.

Gretzky backers can never argue why after the Oilers when Wayne left for the Kings, he NEVER could touch Mario at the scoring title again fair and square (and Wayne was at a prime age of 27). The only post-Oiler years Wayne beat Mario was when Lemieux was out with injuries. Look carefully at the stats and compare the post-Oiler years when Mario and Wayne played roughly the same number of games. 1988-89 was a prime example. Le Magnifique owned.

Anonymous said...

interesting debate. i'm 35 and old enough to have caught both men's playing careers. there is no doubt mario lemieux was undoubtedly the greatest talent the nhl has ever witnessed (offensively). i've known a few ex-nhl'ers who've played with mario and they are in awe even by the things the man does in practice. the numbers game isn't kind to mario in this debate. a lot of folks who back mario and know what they're talking about have broken it down nicely: all the factors leading to mario losing on the numbers front, the very obvious being the fewer games played than gretzky, hockey era, team, etc.. another big factor i think that hasn't yet been mentioned was the disparity between the two conferences both men played on most of their careers. mario on the east, gretzky on the west (back then was "campbell" and "wales"). mario's wales was much more defensive and tight-checking than gretzky's high-flying offensive campbell's conference. i compare mario's career, in a lot of ways to muhammed ali. both men were robbed of their prime years. ali, being banned from boxing due to war draft dodging, lemieux robbed by an ailing back and cancer among other ailments. think about it, mario had 168, 199 point seasons and was on the rise. he was still in his early/mid 20's by the time he stripped the scoring title away from gretzky before the hodgkin's, just think have how many prime years he lost?! the difference between lemieux and ali, was that ali had a chance to redeem himself, come back in an older state but yet able to still defeat unbeatable goliath george foreman. mario on the other hand, actually had a chance at catching gretzky's all-time career goals record, but the atrial fibrulation of his heart put him out for good. it just wasn't meant to be. while it's hard to argue muhammed ali's self-proclaimed thee "greatest" in boxing, gretzky is the one destined to be the greatest one on paper, which unfortunately for mario, in the end is all that counts a hundred years from now.

Anonymous said...

Well written. I was a Gretzky fan growing up, too, despite being a Montrealer. I also felt like Lemieux was challenging his greatness, especially when he got 199 points. But I eventually got won over in the span of 3 years, when he won those two Cups and the Smythes, and in '93 when he came back from cancer to lead the league in points. I just knew at that point that I HAD to keep watching that guy. With that said, I (like you) don't take part in the Crosby VS Ovie VS Malkin silliness... I'm just taking it all in.

rob said...

"Look carefully at the stats and compare the post-Oiler years when Mario and Wayne played roughly the same number of games. 1988-89 was a prime example. Le Magnifique owned."

Valid point, but by this time in their careers, they'd switched positions. Mario was on a powerhouse team that won back to back cups, and was playing with Jagir, the 2nd best player in the league. Wayne was on a sub-par team (not as bad as the one Mario was on at the start of his career, but not great either; their cup run was almost entirely due to Wayne's post-season brilliance) and still put up pretty good numbers. Yes Lemieux was the better player by then, but Lemieux was also younger, in his prime, and on a better team.

Gretzky had already been playing for 10 years by then professionally - that's longer than Bossy, Orr, and many other greats played in their entire careers.

I honestly feel both players were nearly equal, but Wayne was more durable, and that's what it comes down to. If I'm told I have to pick between two players, but Player 1 is going to be injured often, miss time with cancer (greatest comeback ever though), but put up amazing numbers when healthy or Player 2, who will put up slightly better numbers, be healthy, have the best playoff numbers in history, and set nearly every offensive scoring record in the league, then go on to still give me 7 or 8 decent years towards the end of his career when his prime is behind him... how can I not choose player 2?

I'm not saying Gretzky was more talented, but durability is part of the game too. Talent wise they were very equal. But Gretzky was way more durable. That's all there is to it.

Mario never managed to play a complete season. It sucked, because he was one of my favorite players ever, but all those games he wasn't on the ice he wasn't helping his team. Gretzky had even better PPG numbers, and of course higher totals, because he didn't miss anywhere near the number of games, especially during his prime.

Anonymous said...

Actually, did you know on his first retirement in 97, Mario had the highest PPG (2.01) and GPG (0.802) averages, highest of all time for both stats? At that point he was the only player to ever have a career PPG above 2, not even Gretzky could boast that (1.921). However when Mario came back in 2001 and suffered all those hip and heart injuries and retired for good a second time he lowered both averages. PPG belongs back to Gretzky at 1.921 (Lemieux ended with 1.883) and GPG is owned by Mike Bossy at 0.76 (Mario ended up at 0.75).

This shows stats often can mean nothing. Everything is relative to era. You can argue Maurice the Rocket was best of all time if you wanted.

Statistically speaking, Gretzky dominated in an era where number of goals scored per game were ridiculous, something like over 8 goals per game! Lemieux's prime was the clutching grabbing period, when goons were allowed to take out the best players without penalty and when the neutral-zone trap was mastered and teams like the New Jersey Devils who mastered it were winning cups. I think the goals per game at that point was below 5, the game of hockey deemed "boring", so much so they had to invent rules after the 2004 lockout to speed up the game again, like removing the center line for off-side, calling holding more, etc...

I agree that talent-wise, they were pretty close, but I just think Lemieux had that extra god-given natural gift Gretzky and pretty much everyone else could only dream of. Gretzky made up for it with discipline, hours of practice. Lemieux wasted it being "lazy", even smoking in his early NHL years. Maybe the cancer and stuff was God's punishment, or blessing in disguise to get his ass in gear. Who knows?

I dunno, in my opinion it's just the intangibles. Gretzky got layed out only once or twice in his career, like when he almost got killed by a Dave Taylor punch or fighting Neal Broten, but he was very well insulated most of his career, protected by McSorley, Semenko, etc... nobody would dare rape Gretzky and live to tell about it the way Lemieux had been abused by the likes of Adam Graves, Darius Kaspiritus, Todd Krygier, Brad Ference, etc...

True, I'll agree with you that if you pick one player for an *entire career* knowing Mario's downfalls, I'd pick Gretzky.

But if I had to pick between the two for say some super-series like the Canada Cup, Olympics, or Stanley Cup final, with both at their peak, Mario Lemieux, hands down, would be the man any time and day!

Anonymous said...

The real comparison between players with similar skill sets really is Ovechkin and Datsyuk. Pavel, like Wayne, saw the same 3 almost 4 steps ahead of everyone else. Ovechkin, like Mario, was so extremely talented people overlooked everything else that was in their game that made them successful. Personally, i think Mario Lemieux was the most complete player to ever play in the NHL, talent, size, skill, determination, toughness, he had everything. Wayne Gretzky was without a doubt the greatest mind in the history of hockey. It just depends on what you prefer. Someone else said it but i totally agree, Mario was the better talent, Wayne had the better career. Its like comparing Emmit Smith to Barry Sanders, or Brett Favre to Dan Marino. or for u NBA fans Kobe to Tracy McGrady (w/o a doubt more talented than kobe just played with bad teams and had injuries, sorta similar huh?)

David said...

I know this is an old post but the debate will last forever.

Gretzky was the best - part of being the best is longevity. And although Lemieux had the misfortune of battling through injuries and cancer, people always seem to forget that Gretzky was never the same after Gary Suter crushed him into the boards in the '91 Canada Cup. His bad back plagued him all through to retirement.

Don't get me wrong: clearly Lemieux had more talent and I loved watching the guy equally. But my personal view on who the 'best' goes beyond just talent. Gretzky gets my vote.

Factual Tidbit: Gretzky played FIFTY (50) minutes in game 2 of the '87 Canada Cup Final. FIFTY minutes. Unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

Gretzky’s scoring exploits are legendary. He’s the NHL’s all-time leader in every major statistical category, and his 2,857 career points are 980 more than his nearest competitor. Yet had it not been for poor health, Lemieux could have toppled all Gretzky’s seemingly unreachable records.

Lemieux, who finished his storied career with 690 goals and 1,723 points, lost valuable years from his prime due to a chronic bad back and a battle with cancer. His health woes forced him to retire in 1997, and he did so with a 2.01 points-per-game average, the highest in NHL history. He made a dramatic return three and a half years later to keep the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins franchise afloat, but his advanced age and ongoing health problems combined to lower his per-game scoring average to 1.88 points, dropping him below Gretzky's 1.92 career average.

Yes, Gretzky’s advantage in raw numbers is unmistakable. But hockey pundits often overlook the fact it was much easier to score goals in the early 1980s when Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were running roughshod over the league.

The five highest-scoring seasons in NHL history occurred between 1981 and 1986. During that five-year span, Gretzky amassed a staggering 375 goals and 1,036 points in 394 games, recording a remarkable 2.63 points-per-game.

But here’s the dirty little secret. The league averaged a ridiculous 7.87 goals per game during that five-year stretch. To put that number in perspective, in 2007-08, the NHL averaged 5.57 goals per game. In 1985-86, with the league registering 7.94 goals per contest, Gretzky established the NHL single-season scoring record with 215 points.

In 1988-89, Lemieux had his best full season, ringing up 85 goals and 199 points. That year, the league averaged 7.48 goals per game, off 5.8 percent from 1985-86. Adjust Lemieux’s numbers accordingly, and he would have put up 222 points over 80 games.

In 1992-93, Lemieux had a truly magical season, fighting through cancer to produce 69 goals and 160 points in just 60 games. His 2.67 points-per-game clip rivaled Gretzky’s 2.69 standard from 1985-86, except the league averaged only 7.25 goals per game in 1992-93, down 8.7 percent from Gretzky’s record-setting season. Once again, adjust Lemieux’s numbers to 1985-86 terms, and he would have accumulated 232 points over 80 games.

However, Lemieux’s greatest on-ice challenge could have been in 1995-96. Because of expansion and the dreaded neutral zone trap, scoring was down across the league, falling to a paltry 6.29 goals per game. Undaunted, Lemieux still managed 69 goals and 161 points in 70 contests. In 1985-86 numbers, Lemieux’s total would have been worth 223 points over 80 games.

Conversely, take Gretzky’s 215-point pace and put it in the context of 1995-96, and he would have had 148 points over the same 70 games it took Lemieux to record 161.

Adjust both players’ stats to the current 2008-09 goals-per-game average of 5.82, and Gretzky would have a 1.56 career points-per-game mark, while Lemieux would check in at 1.61.

Whether one prefers Gretzky or Lemieux is a matter of opinion. What can’t be argued is Gretzky dominated in an era when it was far easier to score goals. And when the stats are adjusted to reflect the changing league conditions, Lemieux’s numbers are superior. If not for Lemieux’s troubled health, there would be no debate.

Anonymous said...

Why did you use Grezky's 215 point season in 85-86 to talk about Lemieux's best PPG season? Gretzky's best PPG season was not 85-86. It was actually 83-84, when he scored 2.77 PPG! Re-do your math based on those numbers, and let's see if Lemieux still comes out on top.

Anonymous said...

I know this is 4 years old, But I just wanted to say, I grew up hating Gretzky. I was from Pittsburgh, so no contest, Mario was king. When Gretzky retired, I finally checked out his career, and now, I think the whole debate is ridiculous. They both had more talent than any other hockey players I am aware of, but they also had totally different talents. Gretzky was unflappable and had an amazing vision. He always seemed to know where everyone was on the ice. But he doesn't just have 1 record. He has practically all of them. multiple times over. To me, he was like a quarterback, setting up others. I think people were so afraid of his passing, it gave him the ability to just walk the puck in himself. That, plus crappier equipment in his early years meant goalies couldn't see as well, and they played totally different. watch those old tapes. the goalies never went down to stop a shot. They stood constantly. But Lemieux was more like a Running back. when he had the puck on a breakaway, you knew he was going to score. Period. I also think he tried to help others around him be better, and that is why he didn't score as much. he was more concerned for his team then people realized. (though they do now)Lots of times, it seemed like he would wait to see if others could get the job done, and when they failed, he would explode, and score seemingly at will. I think that is why their is debate. It's two totally different skill sets. Mario will not be forgotten though, because to this day, he holds records that show how great he was. He is the only person to score first shot, first shift in the NHL, first to score every possible way in a single game (short handed, power play, even strength, empty net and penalty shot.) His talent was one on one, puck in the net. You wouldn't argue about if Joe Montana or Walter Payton were better because they played different. I think the same goes here. And in that comparison, you could say kickers are the best. They have the most points!

Anonymous said...

Mario's passing was as underrated as Wayne's goal scoring. It's ridiculous when people say Gretzky was more of a passer than a scorer when he owns almost every goal scoring record in the book. But it's also just as ridiculous saying all Mario could do was score. He had a very high assist ratio and his passing was just as ridiculous as 99's, he did things Gretzky did like no-look behind the back 180 spin-o-rama passes. And then some - like threading the puck tape-to-tape through a dozen legs and sticks. Team mates and coaches (Patrick or Bowman I believe) said Mario had the most accurate passes, like a laser beam always on the tape. But what I really want to say, is that both men are great, but Gretzky just played in conditions that made him greater, and Mario in conditions that lessened his greatness potential (era, team, illness, etc). If you want to use basketball as an anology, you can say Mario was Michael Jordan where Wayne was Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul Jabaar (who had higher points than Jordan, but played in eras with higher scoring and worse defense). If you want to use boxing, then how about Mario being Muhammed Ali while Wayne being Rocky Marciano (the only undefeated heavyweight ever)or Mike Tyson (in his prime who destroyed almost everyone he fought with KOs under 3 rounds). It's easy to say Marciano and Tyson aren't so great since they only boxed "tomato cans", just as it is to say Gretzky isn't so great because he was on a dynasty team in an era of crappy defense and goaltending. But it's not that simple. Just as Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson would have probably fared well in a more difficult boxing era like Ali's 60's and 70's, Wayne Gretzky would still be an awesome player if his prime was the 90's or 2000's. But he wouldn't be such a standout miles above everyone else. And Mario playing on an early 80's Oiler's dynasty team? That's anyone's guess. But if you want to see what Mario can do in a high-scoring league similar to the early 80's NHL when the Oilers reigned, look at Mario's stats in juniors. They were scary! In his final junior year with Laval in the QMJHL (a high-scoring league), Mario had a ridiculous 133 goals, 149 assists, 282 points in only 70 games! That's over 4 points per game! Anyways, it's all a bunch of what-if's. Greatness is defined in so many ways. I'd say as a hockey icon, Gretzky was the best ambassador to the sport as anyone could ever ask for. Everything you can ask for -talent, personality, and bringing the game to the US and California. Mario only became the hockey prince and presence everyone expected from the best player in his later years. Gretzky obviously wins in stats, but that's like saying Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson could have beaten a prime Muhammed Ali, which is total bollocks. That's why in terms of who's "the best", "Lemieux" lives up to the name... threading pucks between the goalie behind the goal-line from beyond 30 ft, tape-to-tape laser passes between a dozen sticks and legs, one-handed goals while fighting off two defensemen, making hall of fame defensemen like Ray Bourque look silly, deking and faking an entire team before undressing their goalie...these are all things only Mario's god-given gifts could do and every other hockey player in history could only dream of, including Waynw Gretzky. People forget that Mario Lemieux had only 200 fewer goals than Wayne Gretzky despite having a career almost half as short, including 4 full prime years he didn't even lace up a pair of skates. Yzerman, when passing Lemieux in all-time goals or points, was humble and said something like "yah, that shows how good he was for me to take this long to finally catch up to him".

Jim said...

If he had been healthy he career Super Mario probably would have surpassed Wayne...BUT MORE IMPORTANT he did not use his celeb status like Gretzky to get away with cheap shots and take high slashes on other players. The great one knew he would never get called on a penalty so he could get away with them as long he did not do it too often...I saw it happen and one poor kid had blood on his cheek and a shocked look like he had not expected that to happen

Anonymous said...

Gretzky = The Great One
Mario = The Magnificent One
or
Lemieux = "The Best"
Healthy Mario = "could have been" The "Greatest" One

but "could have been" doesn't really count = so Gretz wins!

Charlie said...

lilfergie21, I doubt you're gonna answer this, but why did you type everything with a - between it? Very hard to read, not to mention annoying.

But to my point, which other will back me on. All of those players you mentioned did not play on Mario's line. Robitaille was in Pittsburgh long enough that if somebody was stuck in Squirrel Hill Tunnel traffic for more than 30 minutes, you might have missed him. With the exception of being caught in a line change, Mario rarely skated with Robitaille. Same can be said about Recchi in his early years. Trottier was not on the top lines with Mario, and the numbers you posted were primarily from his years on the Isle. The only players he regularly skated with were Francis and Jagr.

So which debate is bullshit now?

Anonymous said...

Gretzky was the best especially 5 on 5, lemieux was dominant on the powerplay, when he had time and space look out...if you look at some of his seasons he averaged over 40 percent of his points on the powerplay one year it was 49 percent...95-95

40 percent of all his points in the nhl came on the powerplay...Gretzky's was 30 percent.

35 percent of all of lemieux's goals also on the pp, gretzky's was 21 percent

Gretzky's vision on the ice was like no other...he saw the game in slow motion...He made the game look simple...behind the net he was amazing, those passes were unstoppable and you don't see players today make those plays on a consistent basis, same thing on a 2 on 1, if gretzky had the puck on a 2 on 1, there was a good chance it was going in the net, again today you don't see that.

True Gretzky played with some great players, but gretzky made them even greater, especially kurri, I doubt he would of scored that many points had he not played with Gretzky

Perhaps Gretzky greatest achievement was his ability to stay healthy. That was also part of his genius as his style of play never put him in a position to get hit on a regular basis...He'd hide behind the net or when he had the puck and come in over the blue line he'd slow down look for a winger or trailing defenceman...he just saw the game like no other

As a big guy lemieux had a different style and was more aggressive and he had the talent to go through 2 defencemen...but he was an easier target because of his size and aggressive style, especially on the forecheck...I believe Gretzky was the greatest with Lemieux coming a close 2nd

Jim said...

This entire debate just goes to show that you can't prove anything on the internet.

Everyone showed up with a preconceived notion.

Noboby made a convincing argument they simply gave their opinions.

and at the end of all the sports anouncer type balderdash there was no new information that all of us didn't already have.

The fans of Mario are still convinced he was the best player in the NHL.

and

Wayne's fan's are still convinced he as the best.

if it is all the same I still prefer Gordie Howe

armchairjock said...

Wayne and Mario were so completely different. The uncanny playmaking of Wayne seem to stem from his ability to see into the future. Wayne knew where everyone, and the puck, was; and they were all going to be. Interestingly, it was this same ability that seemed to make it impossible to "line him up" for a monster hit. Something that everyone who called him "protected", failed to understand. He was elusive.

Thee biggest scam in sports is the fact that only one player in the history of the NHL that was not subject to body checking was Gretzky. The gall to say he was "elusive" shows how little this guys really knows about hockey. The fact that Gretzky was not subject to body checking is like he was playing in a 19 year all-star game. If you check his stats in all-star games with Lemieux's stats, Lemieux had twice as many points in half the games. Given these facts, Lemieux was thee greatest forward to ever lace up a pair of skates. If you don't agree, you are wrong!

armchairjock said...

I want to correct a statement in my earlier post when I said: If you check his (Gretzky's) stats in all-star games with Lemieux's stats, Lemieux had twice as many points in half the games. The last part should read: Lemieux had as many points in half the games. So that would only make him twice as good as Gretzky when you compare apples to apples not four times as good. I'm just amazed that some people are oblivious to the fact that Gretzky, and Gretzky alone, was not subject to the same rigors of the game as all the other superstars were. Can anyone in here imagine what kind of stats the great Bobby Orr would have had if no one tried to put him through the boards (or in his case) hit him in such dirty ways that he literally played most of his career on one leg. Or if Lemieux was allowed to roam free on the ice without having to fear being hit. Come on you guys think! It would be like if only one NFL running back was arm tackled or if only one MBL was thrown pitches right down the middle at 70 miles per hour. This sham is the only reason that Gretzky's stats are so inflated. It can't be because he was the only one in NHL history who was too good for people to body check.

Anonymous said...

Armchairjock, you are my hero. This is exactly what I've known and tried to convince some of my buddies for years! Mario had only one or two less all-star points than Gretz but played half the all-star games!

If Gretz was subject to anywhere near the abuse Mario, Crosby, Ovechkin, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Mike Bossy or any of the other greats took, he wouldn't have lasted his rookie season in the NHL!

I do agree Gretzky had a sixth hockey sense that was his greatest asset leading ot his greatness that also avoided some serious hits, but anyone who plays hockey even to a competitive amateur level realizes it's not too difficult to shadow and check anyone, even the Great One. If anyone had a hockey-sense close to that of the Great One, it'd be Mario himself. He was also faster than Gretzky and just as elusive to achieve those amazing dekes, even for a big guy. But that didn't stop vicious slashes from Adam Graves that broke his hand in a playoff game, or dirty cheapshots from the likes of Ference, Doug Carpenter, Darius Kaspiritus, Todd Krygier, etc...

For Canadian hockey fans who lived on Hockey Night In Canada, if you've watched enough hockey games, you'll remember how time and time again Don Cherry pointed out and showed countless clips of how Gretzky could-of/should-of been nailed but wasn't due to preferential treatment in countless situations. The one time he did take a career-ending hit was by Gary Suter of Team USA in international hockey, where the competition and environment didn't protect Gretzky like the NHL did. No Semenko or McSorley there to fend off the wolves. And Gretzky's back and career was never the same ever since.

Mario did show what he could do in a high-scoring league, all-star game environment - in his last season in his year in the minors, he averaged over 4 points per game - I don't care what league you're in, that's sick!

Joe Pelletier said...

I think we need to drop the false notion that there was some sort of rule or league conspiracy against hitting Wayne Gretzky. That is about the silliest thing I ever heard.

I watched Gretzky a lot in his hey day. He got hit a lot. He was smart enough to stay out of the trouble areas where he knew he would not survive. He was quick enough to dart in and out of those areas. He, much like the Sedins nowadays, also had this incredible ability of turning just as getting hit to use the aggressor's momentum to propel him away from the spot, almost always with the puck!

I will be monitoring the comments here very closely. I think maybe the time has come to close the comments for this post. "Jim" perhaps summed it all up best, summed up perfectly the message of my article.

Joe

Anonymous said...

there is no true great one they are all great.They played there way, not yours.Who it was with made no real difference because the others played their way aswell only different as to who they played with so be it on paper or memmory they are all great.They are all the true greats of the game and to try to define who is better is a "To each there own dission" Because no one is truely better then the other they are just different.

Anonymous said...

Mario was like the giant Big Mac Truck barreling down the ice to score on a defenseless Goalie. He was handsome, skilled and unstoppable. On the other hand Gretzky was skilled but needed player protection or he would have been concussed like Crosby and would have faded away.
His career depended on Kurri, Coffey and others.
Crosby isn't a big Mac truck and has no protectors. He has suffered a concussion and barrels on protecting others.
Who is the best? Very possibly it is Crosby and will be if he survives this new brand of hockey!
Thank our lucky stars for the Shanahan fear factor. It may give him a fighting chance at a long career.
Lemieux was my star pick from the beginning!

David M said...

The scary thing about Gretzky's Oilers is that they all could have had more points.

With that much talent and only 2 assists per goal, a lot of assists had to be spread out with 4-5 100 pointers on the ice at all times.

If the scored on average 5 goals per game, theoretical max amount of points the oilers can get is 15 for about 22 players.

So for Gretzky to get about 2.5 points is pretty remarkable when the other stars combined for maybe 8 or 9 points per game.

In a way, Lemieux's best season in 88-89 was easier to achieve since there were only Coffey and Rob Brown to share a load of the points.

Anonymous said...

gretzky is way better

he got like 5 200 point seasons

he has more assists than anyone else has points

conversation over

Kelly said...

I've heard and read every argument anyone can make about Mario would have broke Wayne's records if this or that had been the case. Based on their stats game per game, no he wouldn't have. Injuries and health problems? Wayne played his last 12 seasons with 2 herniated discs. Better players on his team? It can be argued either way but you only have 2 linemates. And Gretzky couldn't protect himself so he had cement on his line you argue. OK well then Wayne really only had Kurri on his line. Rob Brown had a better shooting percentage than Kurri for your info. Rob Brown still holds the WHL record for most points in a season. The oilers were such a good team yet only Wayne got all those points. OK your arguments don't hold up. You can argue talent and skill and leadership etc and come up with who you think was best. But statistically speaking it wasn't even close. Wayne was in a league of his own!

Kelly said...

Can someone explain to me how this adjusting of numbers works. I have seen posts saying goal scoring was down a certain season so adjust everyones points accordingly etc. That doesn't make sense to me and here is why. Lets simplify everything and say there are only 4 teams. The top scorer from 3 of those teams misses the whole year due to injuries. Lets say the top scorer from the 4th team scores 50 goals. The next year every team has their top scorer for the whole year and therefore overall scoring is up. The leagues top scorer gets 55 goals. The player from last year who scored 50 goals once again scores 50 goals. So now you adjust your numbers based on overall goals scored and say the guy who scored 50 last would have scored 60 this year. But in reality he scored 50 this year. I don't think you can do an accurate and fair assessment by adjusting numbers. There are too many variables.

Jim said...

I don't think it can be explained as fair.
one system was devised to try compare the old timers against modern players and the shorter seasons against the current longer season but doesn't account for the differences in rules, etc.

I also think people try to adjust these depending on their favourite players and teams.

you will hear about Richard and his best was during the wartime by those who like other guys better and Gretzky haters really are fans of someone who they think was ignored because of all the fuzz about the "great one"

too bad...sports like all of life is not always fair

Anonymous said...

Gretkzy was an awesome play maker, but Mario was still above in his ability to dominate the ice. And before we get to caught up in comparing Gretzky to Jesus {mand that's sickening}, let us not forget the true greatest hockey player...Bobby Orr. Period. No was, or is better than Robert Gordon Orr. Maybe some day in the future, but no one as of yet.

Anonymous said...

I just googled gretzky versus lemieux...Head to Head games....When they played against each other throughout their careers Gretzky won big time on the head to head battles...To me that says a lot...as when you go head to head with a rival with simialr skill you want to win...and head to head gretzky wins by a landslide

http://hfboards.hockeysfuture.com/showthread.php?t=638736

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