Commentary

Richard's mark in time meant something, but what about now?

Updated: October 18, 2007, 9:14 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Fifty years ago Friday, Maurice (Rocket) Richard became the first NHL player to score 500 career goals.

At the time, he was 36 years old and in his 15th season with the Canadiens, and until that point, the 500-goal threshold had seemed theoretical and unreachable, not attainable.

One reason was tied to the post-World War II incremental lengthening of the season from the 48- and 50-game lengths from 1931-32 through 1945-46, to 60 games in 1946-47 and 70 in 1949-50.

Maurice Richard
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesMaurice Richard scored No. 500 on Oct. 19, 1957.

Setting aside for a moment the actual relative scoring standards of the eras, guys could have "long" careers before the post-war era and be lucky to crack 700 games played -- or the equivalent of 10 mostly healthy seasons today.

Because of the war, Richard arguably made the Canadiens' roster earlier than he would have otherwise, and his 82 goals over the 1943-44 and 1944-45 seasons came against watered-down competition with many young Canadians serving in the war.

But that's something beyond his control, not a self-generated asterisk. And even the 70-game seasons left Richard and his contemporaries with one season "lost" for about every seven or eight played, at least when matched up against the modern era.

Richard's unparalleled genius on the ice was undeniable and it went beyond numbers. And for those of us who never got to see him play, even in his retirement he had that aura, that ineffable force field of greatness and class.

Since that night 50 years ago, 38 other players, from Gordie Howe (801) to Lanny McDonald (500), have joined Richard among the 500-goal set.

It still is an everyone-off-the-bench feat.

It should be a standing-ovation feat, even on the road, though some NHL organizations still act as if the game isn't the thing and shamefully refuse to acknowledge milestones of opposing players, all but banning their fans from getting out of their seats. (The knowledgeable ones, of course, ignore the leads of those shortsighted organ-eye-zations.)

When the San Jose Sharks' Jeremy Roenick, as of this writing at 497 goals, breaks through, he should be saluted without reservation -- for his perseverance, his proficiency, his talent, his refreshing candor, and even his role in the increasing popularity of hockey as a participatory sport among young athletes in the United States.

The problem is the same as in other sports, and perhaps to a degree lesser than in baseball, but more than football and basketball: What does it mean?

I'm a whole-hearted subscriber to the cliché: You have to judge players against their own eras. In any sport. Equipment. Travel. The degree of eliteness of the major-league talent pool and opposition. Rules. Style of play. In some sports, the potential chemical enhancements. It's all different, changing, fluctuating and sliding over the years. Haven't we all recognized that blind adherence to numbers as the measuring standard across time, in any sport, is an absurdity?

Maybe this isn't fair, but black-and-white footage and scratch voice tracks on the old and accompanying play-by-play descriptions still seem to add credibility, whether it's when comparing Frank Mahovlich's 533 goals to Mike Gartner's 708, or any other careers.

Some people mistake that kind of sentiment for a belittlement of the modern era, and those who unreasonably don blinkers and refuse to consider the overall picture are just as silly as the isolated few who refuse to acknowledge the greatness in the past.

It was just different. I'm sure someone somewhere has put together a spreadsheet, comparing Mahovlich's goals against the percentage of those scored per player in his career seasons, versus Gartner's goals against the percentage of those scored per player in his career seasons. If so, send it along, but isn't it also about gut feelings?

Watching the old film now is jarring, isn't it? And even film that isn't "archival" in nature. I can remember seeing a rebroadcast of the 1980 All-Star Game at Detroit -- it was long enough ago that Joe Louis Arena was a new palace, a phenomenon that lasted about two weeks -- and shaking my head.

I covered that game, Gordie Howe's triumphant return to Detroit in a Hartford Whalers uniform (we now pause for a whistled chorus of "Brass Bonanza"); but seeing it or other real games from that era now is wrenching, and not just because of the universality of helmets.

The players now are better than ever -- generally better skaters, better athletes. The internationalization of the talent pool has mitigated the "damages" of expansion.

If it seems that I'm going back and forth here, I am. I admit it.

I miss the auras. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, even Sidney Crosby, have it, or will. I've always believed that one of the beauties of the "old days" was the mystery, that the relative paucity of televised sports meant you had to work harder to create the pictures, whether listening on the radio or looking at the small agate type in the newspaper the next morning. It made it easier to make the players what you wanted them to be, and it was a time when "fantasy" sports weren't some geek at the next desk regaling you about how his "team" did last night, or the guy in front of you at the game wanting to high-five you after Shane Doan's goal only because the fan has him in the fantasy league.

But, in hockey, the bottom line is the guy on the top line.

Wayne Gretzky so elevated all the standards -- and not just the numbers -- that if anyone ever approaches or surpasses his career totals, it's automatic. Those numbers don't involve round numbers, but the best there ever was.

Round numbers are nice. They give writers and fans something to talk about, to celebrate, to salute. Becoming the first to get there, as Richard did, is undeniably and forever praiseworthy.

After that, with each additional member of the club, it loses a bit of its allure.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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