Who is the greatest NHL hockey player of all time? That debate has raged over the decades and has, of course, evolved as new legends emerged to throw their hat in the ring for the coveted title. Once upon a time diehard fans of the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings argued over which of Maurice Richard or Gordie Howe was the greatest ever. Heck, I'm sure some of them still do. Fans that are relatively new to the sport might argue that Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin deserve recognition for the title. Hmmmm, don't think so. Keep building those resumes boys. And let's not forget Mario Lemieux, who in his prime looked like a man playing against boys. Surely he deserves more than a little consideration as the best hockey player to ever grace an NHL rink?
All of the names I've mentioned above are superstars and among the biggest legends the sport of hockey has ever seen, but when it comes to the greatest of all time in most people's minds the debate is really a two horse race involving Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.
It has been over a dozen years since Gretzky last played an NHL game, and more than three decades since Orr last suited up, yet the Gretzky vs. Orr debate continues to rage as hot as ever around water coolers and on online sports forums. Of course, fans of the Boston Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers champion their own "hometown" boy, and the bulk of Bobby Orr proponents tend to be older (ie: actually saw Orr play live) than Gretzky's supporters.
So which one of these two legends deserves the title? Let's take a closer look at their respective careers:
From an early age it was readily apparent that Robert Gordon Orr was going to be a special player. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks all expressed interest in Orr, but it was the Bruins that nabbed the coveted rights to Orr, who committed to the team at the tender age of 14. Orr went on to join the Bruins for the 1966-67 season, potting 41 points in 61 games and earning the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. He would have put up even better numbers had he not missed nine games with a knee injury, a harbinger of things to come.
Over the next few seasons, despite the fact that Orr's knee problems multiplied, the young defenseman swiftly established himself as the premiere player in the NHL. In his sophomore season he earned his first Norris Trophy of an NHL record eight straight. As great as he was in his first three seasons in the NHL he obliterated everyone's expectations in the 1969-70 season.
That year he absolutely obliterated his previous single-season offensive totals, scoring a mind-boggling 33 goals and 120 points and becoming the first NHL defenseman to ever win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, and adding the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP for good measure. Orr would continue his remarkable year in the playoffs, tallying 20 points in 14 games, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and netting the Stanley Cup winning goal en route to helping the Bruins win their first championship in decades.
Amazingly, Orr actually improved upon his offensive totals the following season, scoring 37 goals and 102 assists for 139 points. All three totals were NHL records for a defenseman at the time, and the single season marks for assists and points still stand to this day. Orr was denied a second consecutive Art Ross Trophy by Bruins' teammate Phil Esposito who set NHL records of his own, scoring 76 goals and 152 points that year. Orr did earn his second straight Hart Trophy, however. Not a bad consolation prize.
Over the next several seasons Orr continued to dominate the game like no other player before him. He could skate like the wind, and that speed, combined with his incredible stickhandling ability, made him all but untouchable as he rushed the puck up the ice. Despite his increasingly damaged knees Orr continued to pile up the points, eclipsing the 100 point barrier in six straight seasons. He continued to add hardware to his trophy case as well, earning another Stanley Cup ring, a Conn Smythe, a third Hart Trophy and one Norris Trophy after another. He scored a career high 46 goals and tallied 135 points in 1974-75, but sadly that would be his last great season in the NHL.
The damage to Orr's chronically bad knees were finally two much for the superstar blueliner to overcome and over the next four years he appeared in just 36 NHL regular season games, though he still averaged well over a point a game in that span. His career ended with a whimper as he played in just six games with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1978-79 before calling it a career.
In all, Orr appeared in just 657 regular season games. However, his 915 points over that span represent a 1.39 points per game average, one of the highest of all time at any position, and by far the highest by a d-man. He remains the only defenseman to ever lead the league in scoring, having accomplished the feat twice, and if he had had the benefit of a long, healthy career on two good knees there is no question he would hold the career marks for goals, assists and points by a defenseman.
At the age of ten, Wayne Gretzky scored an eye-popping 378 goals in a single season in the Brantford Atom League. Though he was obviously still very young, that incredible offensive explosion offered a sneak peek into Gretzky's enormous potential. Gretzky's progress up through the ranks, much like Orr's years before, was carefully scrutinized by professional scouts. However, Gretzky never gave an NHL team the chance to draft him, opting instead to sign a personal services contract with Nelson Skalbania and the Indianapolis Racers of the NHL's rival league, the World Hockey Association. Gretzky only wound up playing eight games for the Racers before Gretzky was sold to Peter Pocklington's Edmonton Oilers.
As it turned out Gretzky's arrival in the NHL took place in the same year he would have been draft eligible anyways. When the WHA folded the Oilers were one of four franchises chosen to merge into the NHL. Gretzky easily made the leap to the National Hockey League, putting up the highest points total in history for a first year NHL player. His 51 goals and 137 points tied him with Marcel Dionne for the highest total in the league as well, but Dionne's higher goal total was the tie-breaker and the Los Angeles Kings' star earned the Art Ross Trophy. Gretzky did nab the Hart, but was denied the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, since he was deemed ineligible as a result of already having played in a professional league.
In a decade with the Edmonton Oilers Gretzky would go on to absolutely shred the NHL record book. Some of the individual highlights during his tenure with the club included eight straight Hart Trophies, seven Art Ross Trophies, and two Conn Smythe Trophies. He set single season NHL records in goals (92), assists (163) and points (215), enjoyed an NHL record with a 51 game point scoring streak, and obliterated the 50 goals in 50 games mark, by accomplishing the feat in a mere 39 contests. He also led the Oilers to four Stanley Cup titles in five years as captain of the club.
Despite all he accomplished with the Oilers, Gretzky was not, in fact, an untouchable asset, and the hockey world was stunned on August 9th, 1988 Gretzky was shipped to the Los Angeles Kings.
Gretzky picked up right where he left off with the Oilers, scoring 54 goals and amassing 168 points in his first season with his new team. Over the next several seasons Gretzky would continue to be a prolific scorer, notching a total of 918 points in just 539 games in a Kings' uniform. During that span he became the NHL's all time leader in both goals and points, eclipsing the long time career marks of his idol Gordie Howe in the process. He also added to his trophy haul, nabbing another Hart and three more Art Ross's over his seven and a half seasons with the team.
The highlight of Gretzky's time with the Kings came in the spring of 1993. The Great One put the Kings on his back during a magical playoff run that saw them make it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first and only time in the franchise's long history. Though they would ultimately bow out to the Montreal Canadiens in the finals Gretzky certainly couldn't be faulted for falling short. He finished the run with 15 goals and 40 points, and would surely have won another Conn Smythe Trophy had his team prevailed.
After a short stint with the St. Louis Blues, Gretzky finished his Hall of Fame career with the New York Rangers, reuniting with his old buddy Mark Messier for his last three seasons in an effort to rekindle some of the magic they'd shared in the glory years of the Oilers. Alas, the dream of one last Stanley Cup together was never realized. Despite that, Gretzky acquitted himself well in a Rangers uniform. Though he played past forty and his three seasons in New York took place during the dreaded "dead puck era" Gretzky still averaged well over a point a game playing for the Blue Shirts.
The man who wore number 99 on his back during his NHL career aptly called it a career in '99. His final career numbers were absolutely staggering: 894 goals, 1,963 assists, and 2,857 points. Though the goal total might be within reach, one has to believe that, barring a significant change in the rules of the game, Gretzky's career marks for assists and points will stand as long as the game itself.
So, back to the original question. Gretzky vs. Orr - which of these two legends is the greatest of all time? It is a photo finish, but in the end I have to give Gretzky the nod. His incredible list of records speak for themselves, and many will stand for all time. No other player in the history of the game made his teammates better, and that is probably his greatest achievement as a player.
That being said, I do believe that if Bobby Orr had the benefit of a long, healthy career he would have come out on top of this particular debate. Nobody owned the ice like Orr did, and in his prime Bobby Orr was so far above his peers in talent it was laughable. Alas, such factors as durability and longevity carry weight in these considerations and Gretzky's elusive style of play allowed him to stay relatively healthy until the twilight of his career, giving him the chance to amass the mind-boggling numbers he did.
Hockey Hermit's Verdict: Gretzy vs. Orr - Winner: Wayne Gretzky
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