In 1997, the Hockey News celebrated it's 50th anniversary and published a great collectors book entitled "The Top 50 NHL Players Of All Time". It was a massive undertaking and provoked many a heated debate amongst hockey diehards over who are the greatest players ever. Limiting the list to a mere 50 also generated much verbal jousting as to who wasn't included. THN received as many kudos as they did complaints. It was not an easy task given all players compared were great in their own way and their individual eras.
They polled 50 knowledgable hockey experts (meaning folks that know more about the game than you and I) from the most respected long time journalists, to current and former players, all the way back to general managers and coaches from hockey's earliest beginnings through the original six era, up until today.
While comparing eras is one difficulty, evaluating players who had shortened careers is another.
One example of twisted logic involves how Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux are perceived. While Orr's career ended somewhat abruptly, some never mention that it had an effect on his resume of greatness. With Lemieux, on the other hand, injuries and illnesses are always brought up, conspiring to create a "what could have been" scenario. Could Lemieux have been the best ever? Maybe. Was he? Likely not.
What matters most, is what a certain player did do! What any individual could have done, given the best circumstances, is now irrelevant.
This ranking is simply about who is best and not who was / is the most talented of all time. As a point in fact, my listing will tend to concentrate on what the player accomplished, without regard to circumstance, but without disregarding the era they played in.
The ranking below are my picks (RC), followed by The Hockey News 1997 picks denoted by the first set of brackets (HN-12). The ESPN choices are in the third set of brackets (ES-27).
1 - (HN-1) (ES-1) Wayne Gretzky: The single most dominant player in all of pro sports, bar none.
2 - (HN-2) (ES-2) Bobby Orr: Revolutionized the game more than any one player I've had the pleasure to witness.
3 - (HN-3) (ES-4) Gordie Howe: Most complete of complete players. Unreal longetivity makes Mr. Hockey a role model for all time.
4 - (HN-5) (ES-6) Maurice Richard: The epitome of heart, desire, and goal scoring prowess.
5 - (HN-4) (ES-3) Mario Lemieux: Had ridiculous amounts of talent in a never before seen package.
6 - (HN-8) (ES-6) Bobby Hull: A consistantly wicked and wild sniper. Raised the bar for goalscoring with attitude and style.
7 - (HN-6) (ES-9) Doug Harvey: The prototype of the offensive rearguard. Without him, Orr, Bourque, and Coffey never happen.
8 - (HN-7) (ES-10) Jean Beliveau: Class, leadership, integrity and talent. Hockey's greatest superstar gentleman.
9 - (HN-9) (ES-20) Terry Sawchuk: The best and bravest goalie of all time
10 - (HN-10) (ES-7) Eddie Shore: Tougher than a junkyard dog, Shore was the most feared of stay at home defenseman of his time.
11 - (HN-11) (ES-13) Guy Lafleur: Personified excitement and drama with speed and agility that had few peers.
12 - (HN-12) (ES-11) Mark Messier: Molded in Howe's image, Messier is a case study in leadership, toughness and bravado.
13 - (HN-13) (ES-15) Jacques Plante: Most successful of goalies introduced mask. The truest of pioneers.
14 - (HN-14) (ES-12) Ray Bourque: May well be the most complete defenseman of all time.
15 - (HN-15) (ES-39) Howie Morenz: Died way too soon with the best goals per game average many would never top.
16 - (HN-35) (ES-8) Patrick Roy: Leader in wins by a goalie, Roy lifted teams beyond expectation while winning 3 Smythe Trophies
17 - (HN-16) (ES-24) Glenn Hall: What balls! 502 consecutive games by a goalie. Hockey's most unatainable record!
18 - (HN-17) (ES-18) Stan Mikita: Mr. Blackhawk managed to epitomize both Lindsay and Beliveau in a long prolific career.
19 - (HN-18) (ES-26) Phil Esposito:Raised goal scoring bar to ridiculous height. Delivered the loudest Canadian battle cry ever heard.
20 - (HN-20) (ES-14) Mike Bossy: Most consistant goal scorer in the games history. The ultimate opportunist.
21 - (HN-21) (ES-19) Ted Lindsay: Hockey's first badass rebel with talent, attitude and desire to spare.
22 - (HN-19) (ES-23) Denis Potvin: Did what Bourque managed with added nastiness minus the longetivity.
23 - (HN-29) (ES-37) Henri Richard: Ultimate role player won a record 11 Stanley Cups with dogged determination and fearlessnes.
24 - (HN-30) (ES-XX) Bryan Trottier: Big piece of Islanders dynasty, Trots excelled in every inch of the rink.
25 - (HN-22) (ES-35) Red Kelly: Boxing champion won Lady Byng, led D's in goals 8 straight seasons, captured the first ever Norris.
26 - (HN-23) (ES-41) Bobby Clarke: Pestiest of captains had grit and determination few could rival.
27 - (HN-31) (ES-61) Dickie Moore: In the shadows of greater Gods, Moore raised the Art Ross bar with determination unequaled.
28 - (NH-XX) (ES-22) Dominik Hasek: Acrobatic enigma owns greatest regualer season stats of all time.
29 - (HN-24) (ES-25) Larry Robinson: A general on D few dared challenge. He could score, pass and hit with equal bombast.
30 - (HN-XX) (ES-31) Steve Yzerman: Model superstar. Mayor of Hockeytown. Molded himself into total package lifting team.
31 - (HN-37) (ES-21) Jaromir Jagr: Five time scoring champion stands as the NHL's most exilerating import of all time.
32 - (HN-28) (ES-33) Paul Coffey: Orr's heir apparent, Coffee was pure offensive attack. Skated faster, smoother than anyone since.
33 - (HN-27) (ES-47) Milt Schmidt: Great Bruins captain was a battler who put up points in along career.
34 - (HN-25) (ES-43) Ken Dryden: Intimidating in size, Dryden's calm and composure masked a different breed of goalie.
35 - (HN-26) (ES-40) Frank Mahovlich: The purest of large sized talents, the Big M's greatness was a paradox of show and tell.
36 - (HN-32) (ES-60) Newsy Lalonde: The game's earliest rambunctious star, Cornwall's Lalonde tallied 124 goals in 99 games.
37 - (HN-34) (ES-55) Bill Durnan: Six time first team All Star practically invented goaltender mobility with ambidextrous poise.
38 - (HN-36) (ES-36) Charlie Conacher: Five time goal scoring leader was Leafs prime threat in the 1940's.
39 - (HN-33) (ES-XX) Syl Apps: Precursor to Beliveau mould, Apps class and talent paved way for three Leafs Cups in the 1940's.
40 - (HN-39) (ES-79) Joe Malone: 146 goals in 125 games, including seven in a game inthe era when players never left the ice.
41 - (HN-XX) (ES-38) Ron Francis: Diminutive but tenacious.NHL's 4th all time scoring leader personifies second effort.
42 - (HN-XX) (ES-27) Brett Hull: Greatest pure goal scorer of modern era. A character who embodied the fun of the game.
43 - (HN-XX) (ES-56) Yvan Cournoyer: Overlooked on original list. The speedy "Roadrunner" personified the term "Flying Frenchmen".
44 - (NH-38) (ES-32) Marcel Dionne: NHL's first west coast star vaulted into NHL's all time scoring list. Did everything but win a Cup.
45 - (HN-XX) (ES-28) Martin Brodeur: Solid, consistant, and the backbone of the franchise. May one day top Roy's acheivements.
46 - (NH-42) (ES-51) Bernie Geoffrion: Charismatic and hilarious, Boomer perfected the slap shot, equaled Rocket's 50 goals.
47 - (HN-50) (ES-29) Jari Kurri: Perfect foil rode shotgun to the Great One's gift's. Few finishers of such talent in the game.
48 - (HN-XX) (ES-16) Joe Sakic: Consistantly great. Another hockey gentleman with leadership, skill and desire
49 - (HN-40) (ES-71) Chris Chelios: Defying him's an ordeal. Remains a warrior. Oldest of 5 active players on the list at 44 years old.
50 - (HN-XX) (ES-65) Pavel Bure: Most exciting player of his decade. Puck control at highest of speeds and highlight reel regular.
Close but no cigar radar:
These nine players were bumped from the list simply due to the stars who overtook them.
(HN-33) (ES-XX) Syl Apps: Precursor to Beliveau mould, Apps class and talent paved way for three Leafs Cups in the 1940's.
(HN-41) (ES-50) Dit Clapper: At 6'2'', 200lbs, bridged the gap from Morenz and the Rocket as the game's premier star attraction.
(NH-43) (ES-45) Tim Horton: In Shore's mould, Horton's bull-like strength made him legendary long before donuts made him a household name.
(HN-44) (ES-53) Bill Cook: Rangers RW was the game's premier power forward until the arrival of the Rocket.
(HN-45) (ES-59) Johnny Bucyk: Retired as the games fourth best goal scorer in 1976. Played 21 of his 23 seasons as a Bruin.
(HN-46) (ES-97) George Hainsworth: At 5' 5", this goalie used all techniques to make up for his size. 22 shutouts in a 44 game season remain his testament to greatness.
(HN-47) (ES-46) Gilbert Perrault: Leader of the Sabres "French Connection", this swift center brought the Sabres to lofty heights faster than any expansion team could dream of.
(HN-48) (ES-49) Max Bentley: In the 1940's and early fifties, Bentley was the NHL's assist king. An early Gretzky comparison likened him him to Max in vision and ability.
(HN-49) (ES-54) Brad Park: Played his career in the shadow of Orr. Park was a complete defender, obscured, but often as effective.
The ESPN list was dubious at best. How else do you forget Bryan Trottier completely? These names below either have not yet put in their time, or simply do not measure up.
(HN-XX) (ES-17) Peter Forsberg: Tempting, but time may be running out on this fiercest of competitiors.
(HN-XX) (ES-30) Nicklas Lidstrom: Very close. Lidstrom needs only to add one more touch to his resume as Wings captain.
(HN-XX) (ES-42) Sergei Fedorov: Great in peak years. Has been a passenger ever since. Pre-mature over-evaluation.
(HN-XX) (ES-44) Tony Esposito: A great goalie with no Cup to his resume has no home in top 50.
(HN-XX) (ES-48) Peter Stastny: Steady performer had great career, but nothing of note to make a place for him here.
To view the complete ESPN top 100 list, follow this link.
For a current list of todays 50 best courtesy of The Hockey News via the Puck Stops Here blog, click this link