Best Player: The Great One

Updated: November 17, 2004, 4:23 PM ET
The Hockey News

GREAT DEBATES
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Who is the best player of all time?
Writers' choice
A panel of 41 writers were asked their opinions on various great debates in hockey. Multiple choices were not provided so as not to color the outcome.
Player Votes
Wayne Gretzky 15
Gordie Howe 13
Bobby Orr 11
Bryan Trottier 1
Peter Forsberg 1
Fans' choice
You don't need to haul out a record book to determine the best all-around player. Not when the entire sports world refers to you affectionately as The Great One.
Player Votes
Wayne Gretzky 36.1%
Bobby Orr 30.9%
Gordie Howe 18.3%
Mario Lemieux 12.0%
Maurice Richard 1.9%
The Great One is, quite simply, "The Greatest Ever."

Even before he scored an astonishing 378 goals and 598 points in 85 games as a 10-year-old atom level player in Brantford, Ontario, Wayne Gretzky was something truly special ­ good enough to play, and even score a goal, for a 10-and-under team at the tender, young age of 6.

Five years after his 1999 retirement following an incomparable 21-season pro career, Gretzky remains the standard by which all hockey players, past and present, are measured. With all due respect to Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and other immortals who have highlighted the game's rich history, no one who has ever laced up a pair of skates even comes close to No. 99.

No one else will ever wear the most famous jersey number in sports history ­at least not in NHL action. The league took the unprecedented step of retiring Gretzky's number immediately after he played his final game for the New York Rangers, stepping away as the owner or co-holder of an unbelievable 61 NHL records.

The Hockey Hall of Fame's selection committee also waived Gretzky's mandatory three-year waiting period for enshrinement, making him just the 10th player ever to receive such a distinction.

It is difficult to fathom now that, even after Gretzky scored six goals in his first game and went on to finish with 70 goals and 182 points in his lone full major junior season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, "experts" once questioned his ability to survive at the pro level because of his slight, 6-foot frame.

His uncanny sense of anticipation, honed while charting "Hockey Night in Canada" telecasts as a young child, not only enabled Gretzky to know where the puck would go before it got there, not only made him the most accomplished and amazing passer the game has ever known, but also made it next to impossible for opponents to ever get in a clean lick on him.

From the time Gretzky entered the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers in 1979, after a 110-point rookie season in the defunct World Hockey Association, the game was never the same. In his first NHL season, Gretzky put up 51 goals and 137 points, and claimed the first of eight consecutive Hart Trophies as the league's most valuable player.

Over the next eight years with the Oilers, he averaged nearly 192 points per season and achieved a series of remarkable milestones that included 50 goals in the team's first 39 games in 1981-82, a league-record 92 goals that same season, points in 51 consecutive games at the outset of 1983-84 and a single-year, Stanley Cup playoff-record 47 points in 1985.

COUNTERPOINT: GORDIE HOWE
The most remarkable achievement in NHL history, without question, is that Gordie Howe played a full season in the league at the age of 51 and finished seventh in team scoring with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, dressing for all 80 games.

Longevity is the feat that separates the greatest from the great. And that's why the native of Floral, Saskatchewan, is hockey's all-time best. That's unless you discount 25 consecutive seasons in a Detroit uniform -- 21 of them with 25 goals or more, 103 points in just 76 games in 1968-69 at age 40 and six Hart trophies, all of them won in the more competitive six-team NHL. At 40, Wayne Gretzky was sitting in a rocking chair in the press box!
While no one else has ever reached 200 points in a season, Gretzky did it four times, including a record 215-point effort in 1985-86.

In addition to all the individual accolades, Gretzky captained a star-studded Edmonton cast that also included Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson to Stanley Cup championships in 1984, '85, '87 and '88 before going to the Los Angeles Kings in an Aug. 9, 1988 trade that rocked Canada and stands as the biggest deal in hockey history.

In Los Angeles, Gretzky not only won a record ninth Hart Trophy in his first season and led the Kings to their lone Stanley Cup final appearance in 1993, but he brought a star magnitude to the U.S. Sun Belt that paved the way for further NHL expansion into California, as well as teams in other non-traditional hockey states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.

Now the managing partner and alternate governor for the Phoenix Coyotes, as well as the executive director of Canada's Olympic and World Cup program, Gretzky will go down as the greatest ambassador and marketer hockey has ever known.

It was on the ice, though, where Gretzky was best, the best of all-time. With 894 goals among his 2,857 points in 1,487 NHL games, Gretzky's 1,963 assists are more than any other player has points, making him the most statistically dominating athlete in the history of team sports. In addition to winning more league most valuable player awards than any player in any team sport, Gretzky also collected 10 Art Ross trophies as NHL scoring champion, two Conn Smythe Trophies as most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs and five Lady Byng Trophies for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct.

A first-team NHL all-star eight times and a second-team selection on seven occasions, Gretzky won a 1997 The Hockey News poll of former players, past and present sportswriters, broadcasters, coaches and hockey executives as the game's top player of all-time.

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