July 27, 2008

Is Rocket Richard The Greatest Player Of All Time?

Nostalgia and sports are a powerful combination. Too often those golden memories can be blinding.

Our fathers told us hockey is not like it used to be. Not like back in the good ol' days of Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull, Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe.

Our grandfathers will tell us that hockey is nothing compared to days even earlier than that. He'll ramble on forever about Frank Boucher and the Cooks, Bill and Bun, that dipsy-doodle dandy Max Bentley and of course the incomparable Howie Morenz.

Now as we get older we become the fans of a certain vintage. We will hold up the newcomers like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin to our old guard. Oh they're good alright, but nothing like Wayne or Mario, we'll say.

Which is great, because that's what being a fan is all about. And this keeps alive the glories of hockey past for future generations.

But to truly understand history, you first must understand context. Legend and lore are great, but not necessarily true.

Take for example Rocket Richard. He was the most exciting player of his time, perhaps ever. He transcended the game in Quebec, where he is not so much a hockey hero but a true cultural icon unlike any other hockey player has even come close anywhere else.

Over the years his legend and lore have grown and grown. Time will do that to our heroes.

Which leads me back to my question: Is Rocket Richard the greatest player of all time?

You can't really answer that question now, because his status has become so mythical that it has created a new legend, one perhaps bigger than he ever was. To truly understand context, we have to travel back in time, back to the days when the Rocket soared, to decipher how great he really was.

Since Marty McFly's Delorean is out of plutonium again, time travel is proving difficult to do. But thanks to Sports Illustrated's Vault we have access to one of the best history research tools out there.

The question of just how great was Rocket Richard just happens to be the same question posed by Sports Illustrated's Jimmy Jemail to a variety of hockey coaches, managers and journalists back in April 1956.

Let's see what they had to say back then:

JACK ADAMS, Detroit Red Wings general manager

"Definitely not. He is colorful and undoubtedly one of hockey's greatest scorers. But to term him the greatest as against Gordie Howe , Eddie Shore and Howie Morenz is to overlook defense and passing skills and team spirit. The ability to score is most important, but it isn't all important."

CONN SMYTHE, Toronto Maple Leafs owner

"Yes. For color and robust hockey he compares with Reardon, Shore and Horner. For speed and spectacular plays, he is like Morenz and Apps. For scoring plays, he has a little on Nels Stewart and Bill Cook. You might say that only a two-way player like Ted Kennedy was greater."

FRANK BOUCHER, NY Rangers Hall of Famer and coach

"He ranks with the greatest in hockey. As a scorer, from the blue line to the net, he is in a class by himself. As a popular player he's also on a par with the late Howie Morenz. However, I nominate Bill Cook , my old teammate, as the greatest all-round player of all time."

GENERAL JOHN REED KILPATRICK, president of Madison Square Gardens

"Yes. Richard has established great records over a long period of time and still stands in the front rank of hockey. None of the old-timers could touch him. Gordon Howe and the Rocket's teammate, Beliveau , are the only active players who can be compared to him."

MUZZ PATRICK, NY Rangers General Manager

"When you think of Bill Cook , formerly of the Rangers , Gordon Howe of the Red Wings and Jean Beliveau , it's hard to say one is the greatest. But the Rocket is awfully close to it. No one will argue with me when I say he is the most entertaining, exciting and explosive player of all time."

MILT DUNNELL, Sports Editor, Toronto Star

"Any comparison of athletes, past and present is difficult, due to changing conditions. However, no hockey addict can argue that the game is now played at a faster tempo than ever before. In assessing Richard the Rocket, I have to be guided by what I see on ice, what I see in the record books and what I have seen in the past. The Rocket has scored more goals than any player in the history of the game. He has scored more goals in one season. He holds the record for the playoffs. Richard has been in big league hockey since 1942 and has played equally well with various line combinations. Until someone else does as many things, over as great a span, I would have to call Richard the greatest."

CLARENCE CAMPBELL, National Hockey League President

"It may be unreasonable to select one player and declare him to be "the greatest player of all time," and I am not one of those few who have seen all the greats. But no other man has staked such a claim to that rating as Richard. I've never had as many thrills watching any other player."

There are more quotes in the original article, mostly from journalists, located in the vault.

Oh. To answer the question I posed: Is Rocket Richard the greatest player of all time?

I'll let you decide.

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