January 29, 2018

Gretzky's Greatness

It's been nearly 20 years since Wayne Gretzky last played a game in the National Hockey League. There is an entire generation of hockey fans who never saw the greatest player in the game play the game.

In fact, that generation may very well not think Gretzky is the greatest ever.

Not that he necessarily is. There is plenty of great arguments for Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe in particular and even Sidney Crosby now. And those cases certainly are not wrong.

But we seem to be in a period where Gretzky, and to a similar extent Mario Lemieux, does not seem to getting his due.

Part of that is we are celebrating the old legends as we lose them. Richard, Beliveau and Howe have all gone in recent years. We better celebrate Orr while we can.

Part of is Gretzky's own fault. He is very complimentary of all the aforementioned players and will actually lead the charge in arguing their cases, particularly in the case of Gordie Howe.

Furthermore, Gretzky deflects praise for himself by dismissing his own greatness. He was the right player at the right time he often says, which is correct no doubt.

Another reason is the Bobby Orr supporters in particular like to bring down Gretzky. They always are pointing out flaws. He was an awkward and slow skater - but he had one step quickness and he in many ways reinvented the game with his superior lateral skating. He had a weak shot - yet he scored more goals than anybody. He was poor defensively - which he was in textbook terms but in reality it was all part of a revolutionary game plan. He had no physical game - which he really didn't but somehow he still dominated the game unlike anyone else.

That these Orr supporters immediately resort to such tactics suggests from the start that they know #4 is number 2 on the greatest list, at best.

In many ways greatness is defined by legacy. Orr undeniably revolutionized the game. All great players do to some level, but not the same as Orr. But Gretzky did, too.

I found a collection of quotes from hockey's great intellectual Ken Dryden, in conversation with writer David Levine, about Gretzky's legacy. The amazing thing about these thoughts are they came from 1983. Gretzky was 22 years old, and had yet to win the Stanley Cup. His greatest seasons were still ahead of him. His true impact on the hockey world was yet to come. And yet Dryden was already discussing Gretzky's legacy.

"Any great player suggests the kinds of ways in which a game can be played. What Orr did was put into the mind of the game a model to aspire to, and although Gretzky has special skills that can't be copied, his sense of the is what he'll leave behind."

"Gretzky will have a large effect on the understanding of the game in the sense of how the game may be played. He will provide a model for others, and the thing that's great is that it's fun to play his way. It's not the grinding, uncreative game. You don't need much encouragement to play his way."

"His legacy will be the sense of movement, of speed, or just breaking into the openings wherever they happen, whenever they happen. He'll leave behind his terrific sense of this combination game, that any individual star, no matter how great, is fairly easy to stop, but is much harder to stop if he works with the others to their advantage and to his advantage.

"Gretzky is the first of our great scorers who essentially plays with the other four skaters," Dryden continued. "The Hulls, the Espositos, the Mahovlichs were the driving force of the unit, and the others were support players to them, in many ways put with them for that purpose. Gretzky is different in that he combines effectively and mutually with the others. They are not just support players to him. Gretzky gives up the puck to someone in a better position, to move in turn into better position to get the puck back, to give it up, to get it back. It creates all sorts of distraction. In many ways, that's why he is as hard to stop as he is.

"He is not the product of a changing game. He is the driving force toward a different game. He is Gretzky."

So kids, don't listen to anyone who dismisses The Great Gretzky. Especially Gretzky himself.


Chazac said...

I'm sorry, I can't let your article on Gretzky vs Orr go without comment. I am a 60 year old who saw them both play (and saw the tail end of the Great Gordie Howe's days on ice for Detroit and in the WHA). Gretzky was no where near the player either Orr or Howe was. I put Gretzky actually *behind* Mario in fact. Mario had more skill than any of them! Orr and Howe were complete players in the NHL, whereas neither Gretzky nor Mario played the 200 foot game. Howe actually played several games in his last couple of seasons as a Defenseman on those Detroit teams. I will give Gretzky his due as the best NHL scorer and he was the franchise for NHL popularity to the West Coast and more importantly he did change the game. Still, if you had a team of 5 Gretzky's against 5 Orr's and your life depended on the winner .... I think you'd have to pick the team of Bobby Orr's. BTW - here is a quote from Cam Cole of the National Post: "Gretzky was understated genius, but Orr was breathtaking. There was no one remotely like him. With that bow-legged stride, the ice would simply disappear behind him. He flashed past checkers, brushing them aside with one arm, one hand on the stick as he fended them off, end-to-end, reckless, yet somehow — in my mind’s eye — always back on defence when the puck went the other way."

Anonymous said...

There is no debate on who the greatest hockey player ever is, it's Wayne Gretzky hands down. The reason is simple when the debate for who the greatest team sport athlete is or the athlete of the century is only one name from hockey comes up, Gretzky. Not Howe, not Orr and not Mario. When the sport experts talk about the athlete of the century names like Ali, Pele, Ruth, Jordan and Gretzky are all up for consideration. Not Orr, or Howe. Were talking all-time greatest, elite and best ever. If Gretzky's name is in this discussion then he's the best hockey player ever, thats a given. End of debate.

As for your article I believe we don't hear Gretzky's name so much because it's a given he's the best, it's a non-issue.

Gretzky's 61 NHL scoring records and the sheer enormity of some of those numbers make him the most statistically dominant athlete in team sports. But bigger than that Gretzky revolutionized the game. He changed the landscape of the NHL. He played from behind the net. He did things no one ever thought of doing. And he made every player he played with better.

Mario Lemieux's career averages are superior to Gretzky's but judged over the same number of games 750+ - game length of Mario's career, Gretzky edges Lemieux in goals and far exceeds him on points. Unfortunately Mario was often injured and fought cancer so we'll never know how good he could of been. One thing the Great One never dealt with was major injury. Speaks to his genetics and longevity in the game. Staying healthy in the game of hockey is also one of Gretzky's more remarkable achievements. You can say he didn't bang and crash and you would be right but that wasn't his job. His job was to utilize all his teammates on the ice to beat you and he did it better than anyone. You can't hit what you can't find!

As for Howe and Orr. They are titans of the game. Gods of hockey. Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux all call Howe the best ever. But Howe says Gretzky is the best ever. Orr revolutionized the game and changed the defense-man position forever. I grew up in New England and no matter what decade of hockey your talking Orr's name is cemented in New England area. It's a New England bias they'll never concede their opinion on best ever.
Howe was an amazing physical talent that could score at will. His numbers are insane and they'll stand the test of time for a long, long time.

However I think at the end of the day when you look at the collective body of work I believe Howe is a close second and Orr falls short of that for best ever. The Great One is the best ever.

The discussion is really about who's second and third.