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December 5, 2016
LCS Top 100: No. 3
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
No player in professional sports has ever been as dominant as Wayne Gretzky. Yeah, you can argue Babe Ruth and Don Hutson, but Gretzky's the tops. His 1,963 assists alone would make him the NHL's all-time leading scorer. Toss in his record 894 goals, and Gretzky stands 970 points ahead of second-place Mark Messier (1,887) on the all-time scoring list.
Gretzky started his professional career as a 17-year-old with the WHA's Indianapolis Racers. He played just eight games before the cash-strapped club shipped him to the Edmonton Oilers for a big box of money. The precocious teenager would finish third in league scoring with 110 points, helping the Oilers to an Avco Cup Finals appearance against the Winnipeg Jets.
Gretzky and the Oilers joined the NHL the following year, and the youngster's scoring exploits continued. He led the league in assists (86) and tied Marcel Dionne for the scoring title with 137 points, but Dionne claimed the Art Ross thanks to scoring two more goals. That's as close as anyone would get to Gretzky for a long, long time.
In 1981, Gretzky won his first of seven consecutive Art Ross Trophies, scoring 164 points to shatter Phil Esposito's previous record of 152. Dionne finished second that year, trailing Gretzky by 29 points. And that was a tight race. Over the next six years, no one would get within 65 points of Gretzky, with his average margin of victory checking in at a cool 73 points.
All told, Gretzky led the league in goals five times, won 10 Art Ross Trophies, earned nine Hart Trophies, captured two Conn Smythes, and contributed to four Stanley Cups. He led the league in assists a remarkable 16 times, including 13 consecutive seasons from 1980 to 1992.
A spindly fella, Gretzky didn't dominate due to physical prowess. Sure, he was a nifty skater, specializing in quick changes of direction and darting cuts, but you'll never confuse him for Pavel Bure. In terms of shooting, his wrist shot was average at best, which is why he scored a disproportionate number of goals with the slapper. His greatness as a goal-scorer came from his dead-eye accuracy and his sheer will to score. Gretzky did have a spectacular set of hands, allowing him to spin and twirl with the puck like a monkey on a high wire. His ability to control the pill in tight quarters saw him own the area below the goal line, where he used the net to compensate for his lack of size and separate from defenders.
But forget the physical stuff. Gretzky dominated because he had the brains. No one could match him between the ears. He thought the game in dimensions other players couldn't perceive. H.G. Wells would have had trouble imagining a man this far ahead of his time.
So why is Gretzky only No. 3?
Well, the stats are swell and all, but they're also terribly misleading. Gretzky came along at the perfect time on the perfect team in the perfect situation. The game had shifted from the fearsome brutality of the 1970s into a free-wheeling offensive showcase. Defensemen were wearing long pants. Goaltenders looked like Mr. Salty. It was a wild, wild scene. Lanny McDonald scored 66 goals in 1983. Lanny f'n McDonald!
In 1981-82, the year Gretzky went for 92 goals, the NHL averaged 8.03 goals per game, the second-highest average in league history (1943-44: 8.17). And Gretzky and the Oilers weren't responsible for the spike in offense; it was a league-wide phenomenon. Yeah, the Oilers led the league with 417 goals, but if you take the Oil out of the mix, the other 20 teams still averaged 316 goals. In 1986, when Gretzky piled up the record 215 points, the other 20 NHL teams averaged 312 goals.
To put those totals in perspective, the Washington Capitals led the league in scoring with 318 goals last season. And the Caps were the only team to crack 275. Times, they are a-changin'.
Gretzky owes his statistical dominance to the years between 1982 and 1986. During that five-year span, Gretzky posted four 200-point seasons and totaled an astounding 375 goals and 1,036 points in 394 games. It's no coincidence those five years just happen to be five of the top six scoring seasons in NHL history, with the league averaging a lofty 7.87 goals per game.
Back in 2009, I went season by season and adjusted Gretzky's point totals to the then league average of 5.82 goals per game. Not surprisingly, Gretzky's stats took quite the tumble. In today's numbers, Gretzky would have averaged 1.56 points per game for his career, good for 128 points over 82 contests. Adjust Mario Lemieux's career numbers in the same fashion, and he averages 1.61 points per game, which is exactly what Kid Crosby was averaging this season before his concussion.
As the 80s turned to the 90s, goaltending and defenses improved, meaning Gretzky could no longer just wind up and hammer slap shots at standing stick figures. From the ages 18 to 26, Gretzky averaged 0.86 goals per game. From 27 to 32, still prime years for a hockey player, Gretzky averaged just 0.54 goals per game. For comparison sake, Lemieux averaged 0.90 goals per game between the ages of 27 and 32, and he was doing it in a time when it was much harder to score. So did Gretzky suddenly get old at 27? Or did the game change around him?
This math lesson isn't meant to diminish Gretzky's brilliance. After all, if it was so easy to score in the early 1980s, why wasn't every superstar going for 200 points or at least staying within 70 points of Gretzky? But the debate isn't whether or not Gretzky was the best player of his day. The question is whether he's the best of all time.
If you level the playing field according to era, all statistical advantages go out the window. And in my humble opinion, he can't physically match up to the two guys ranked ahead of him.
But I come to praise Gretzky, not to bury him.
No one ever worked harder at his craft or loved hockey more than Wayne Gretzky. He was born into greatness and carried the burden with unmatched grace, exceeding all expectations and raising the bar for those who followed.
And we'll always have Waikiki Hockey.