Teams nowadays would be jealous of the Original Six era. Every team was loaded with Hall of Famers and stars. Even the role players would be stars now.
But no superstars were bigger than Maurice "Rocket" Richard of the Montreal Canadiens and Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings.
Their careers more or less coincided, with each leading their teams in epic clashes of dynasties in the 1950s. They were fierce rivals, sincerely detesting each other. And as such debate has raged amongst fans ever since: Who was better? Richard, or Howe?
The Greatest Goal Scorer
Maurice Richard's career spanned from 1942 to 1960 and in that time won the Stanley Cup eight times and won the Hart trophy as the NHL's most valuable player in 1947. He set once-unthinkable scoring records, including being the first player to score 50 goals in 50 games, and the first player to score over 500 career goals. Maurice Richard finished his career with the Stanley Cup win in 1960 and 544 regular-season goals.
For Rocket Richard every beloved goal, every enraged altercation, every fiery stare down was truly an event. He played with such spectacular flare, and with such glorious suddenness, that he came to represent a nation. He played all out with instinctive emotion and determination, and became hockey's greatest scoring machine.
He was also arguably hockey's most important figure. Certainly in Quebec and amongst French Canadians everywhere. His every trait came to represent that nation unlike almost any person in Canadian history, giving him an unmatchable legacy. In Quebec there is no debate. Rocket Richard is the greatest hockey player. Period.
Then there was Howe, the man so good at the game they dubbed him "Mr. Hockey." He would break Richard's records, and thanks to his unthinkable longevity, dwarfed every record in the game, at least until Wayne Gretzky came along. 1767 games, 801 goals, 1850 points, and that is not even including his WHA totals. Six Art Ross trophies. Six Hart trophies. Four Stanley Cups.
He was never as spectacular or dynamic as Richard, or even several other players. Has there ever been a better package of masterful skill, imposing physicality and hockey shrewdness? He may have been the perfect hockey player, with no notable flaws. His career zenith may not have been as high as Richard, or Gretzky, or Lemieux, but no player was so consistently good for so long. Howe's greatness is not measured over a period of years, but a period of decades.
So who was the better player?
The general consensus gives Howe the edge. He was the more complete player, equally proficient in every zone, spectacular in every aspect of the game, though usually in an understated way. He dominated seemingly forever.
In comparison Richard's game had flaws. He was not nearly as good defensively as Howe. His offense was so singularly focused on scoring goals that he was not a great playmaker. And of course his legendary temper got the better of him on many occasions. His lack of discipline hurt his game.
Even Richard even agreed with the consensus, once saying of Howe "He is a better all-round player than I am."
That being said, when the game was on the line, particularly in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Richard could raise his game to a higher level than Howe and every other player in history. His unbelievable will to win was unequaled.
It would an interesting if you could somehow have a team of Rocket Richards vs. a team of Gordie Howes. Team Howe would probably finish higher in the standings, with a consistent season from opening night to the final game. Team Richard would be the most entertaining team on ice.
The two teams of course would make it to the Stanley Cup finals where Team Howe would probably eke out a win in a 7 game series. But if game 7 went into overtime, all bets are off!