Part I -- Top players

Updated: September 30, 2005, 8:20 PM ET
ESPN.com

The NHL is Starting Over, trying to recapture what makes hockey great. In a five-part series, ESPN.com remembers what made it that way in the first place, hockey's players, rivalries, teams, games and enforcers.

Ask 100 hockey fans for their list of Top 10 players, and you'll find 100 variations.

It is part of a timeless sports debate, ongoing, without end. But with hockey in particular, the players who form the backbone of that debate have been some of the most exciting athletes the sports world has known.

Wayne Gretzky making a soft pass for a goal from his "office" behind the net. Bobby Orr starting an up-ice rush, racing by flat-footed defenders. Patrick Roy showing his butterfly saves for the first time or turning to talk to his goalposts after denying another shooter.

The reinvention of the NHL is coming soon. It will showcase new rules and new skills. With that in mind, we take a look at some of hockey's best this week, starting with the players.

Here, in no particular order, are players who would arguably make most fans' lists:

Wayne Gretzky
Yes, yes, it goes without saying that The Great One makes the list. Arguably the game's greatest player and definitely its best ambassador, Gretzky saw the ice like no other. Gretzky is the most honored player in a team sport with nine Hart Trophies and the only NHL player to score more than 200 points in a season (oh, and he did that four times). With the Rangers, the last of four teams he played on, Gretzky tied for the NHL lead in assists at ages 36 and 37. The Hockey Hall waived the mandatory waiting period, inducting Gretzky on Nov. 22, 1999. Those incredible stats again: 2,857 points, 1,963 assists and 894 goals.

Bobby Orr
APBobby Orr was so tough, even his ashtray was beyond reproach.
Bobby Orr
No one redefined the style of hockey, or his position, more than Orr. No. 4 was the first to infuse offensive juice to the defenseman position, driving up the ice, setting up players and scoring a few goals of his own. There was nothing like it before Orr. He was also aggressive and physical, a style that would take its toll and debilitate his career. Orr was the first player to win three straight MVP awards, the first to tally 100 or more points in a season and the first defenseman to score 20 or more goals in a season (he did it seven straight seasons). After numerous knee operations, Orr retired from the game Nov. 8, 1978.

Gordie Howe
The all-time definitive power forward, Mr. Hockey's longevity will never be matched. Howe played for 32 seasons and holds the record of most games played in the NHL (1,767). Howe finished in the top five in NHL scoring for an incredible 20 straight seasons, won six Hart Trophies and six Art Ross Trophies and led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups. Howe also was selected to 21 All-Star teams. The oldest player to participate in an NHL game (he was 52 when he played in 1980), Howe will always be remembered for his consistent physical and offensive dominance.

Mario Lemieux
Lemieux translates into "the best." When his career comes to an end, again, Super Mario will definitely be regarded as one of the game's top players. Lemieux helped the Penguins take back-to-back Cups in the early '90s. By that time, he also won three MVP awards and led the league in scoring six times. Lemieux's biggest achievement was overcoming Hodgkin's disease. After sitting out the 1994-95 season, he returned to win the next two scoring titles. In 1997, he left the game, not for health reasons, but because of his frustration with the increasing hooking and holding in play. He was inducted into the Hall the following September, only to make a comeback in 2000. He will be in the Pens' starting lineup on Oct. 5.

Doug Harvey
Harvey might not have had the speed of Orr, but the former Montreal defenseman was very Orr-like and was arguably the best of his time. The Canadiens were deep in talent, but Harvey was still able to stand out during Montreal's five straight Cup victories (1956-60). He won the Norris Trophy seven times in eight years (1955-62). Late in his career, Harvey was blacklisted by the NHL for his involvement with the first attempt to form a players' union and the Canadiens didn't retire his number until 1985. He was unanimously elected into the Hockey Hall in 1973.

Maurice "The Rocket" Richard
A player with superb talent and amazing intensity, Richard rolled over anyone who got in his way. His career is a list of firsts: first to score 500 goals in a career, first to score 50 goals in a season, the only player to score an NHL-record six playoff overtime goals. Although he never led the league in overall scoring, he was the leading goal scorer five times. Most important: he led the Canadiens to eight Stanley Cups in 18 seasons. The hockey world lost Richard on May 27, 2000, when he died of respiratory failure after a long battle with abdominal cancer.

Patrick Roy
When Patrick Roy was named the Montreal Canadiens' starting goaltender for the 1985-86 season, he had 20 minutes of NHL experience. When he started to play, Montreal wanted Roy to change his now-famed "butterfly" style. But he quickly diminished any doubters by the end of that season: Roy led the Habs into the playoffs, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Early in the 2000-01 season, Roy passed Terry Sawchuk for career NHL wins with 447 and finished his career with 551, a number most consider untouchable. A four-time Stanley Cup champion, Roy is the NHL's career leader in games played (1,029) by a goalie, playoff victories and shutouts. Roy won two Cups each with Montreal and Colorado. He also became the first goalie to eclipse 60,000 minutes.

Jean Beliveau
The epitome of a playmaking center. Beliveau doesn't hold a single NHL record, but that doesn't minimize his place in history. He is a member of the 500-goal club with 507, he finished with 1,219 points in 1,125 games and posted 176 career playoff points. Only Beliveau and former teammate Henri Richard have won 10 Stanley Cups. Beliveau is also known for his work off the ice. After his retirement in 1971, the Canadiens helped create the Jean Beliveau Fund for underprivileged kids. Many considered it a fitting farewell.

Mark Messier
Messier is considered the second coming of Gordie Howe, and is considered by most to be the game's best leader. The two-time league MVP retired this offseason after 25 seasons with 694 goals, 1,193 assists, 1,887 points and 1,910 penalty minutes in 1,756 games. He ranks second only to Gretzky in scoring.

Eddie Shore
He's old school, but you can't have this list without Eddie Shore. The defenseman combined up-ice rushes with crushing checks, and totaled a record 130 penalty minutes in his first NHL season with the Boston Bruins (1925-26). He also scored 12 goals, more than all but three Boston forwards that season. Shore was also part of the Bruins' first Cup-winning team in 1929.

Honorable mentions:
• Howie Morenz (he's old, old school, but the record books don't lie).
• Ray Bourque (one of the best defensemen to ever play).
• Mike Bossy (one of hockey's greatest snipers).
• Jacques Plante (showed an innovative, roaming style in net and introduced the mask as everyday equipment for netminders).
• Guy Lafleur ("Le Demon Blond" was one of the best wingers of all time).
• Terry Sawchuk (now, second only to Patrick Roy).
• Bobby Hull (the Golden Jet combined speed, a huge slap shot and physical play).

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