My wife and I were on vacation in Quebec once upon a time, when we decided to tour the scenic waterfalls.
The tour guide was a pleasant French-Canadian man with some knowledge of the area and a mini-bus taxi. Well, it turned out that the only other couple on the tour was from Pittsburgh. When the cabbie found out, the conversation quickly turned to Mario Lemieux.
And it soon became “Lemieux this, Lemieux that” and eventually, “Lemieux is the best player ever, much better than Wayne Gretzky … much, much, much better … not even close.” This went on and on.
I don’t believe for a second that Lemieux was better than, or nearly as good as Gretzky. But here I am trapped in the back of a van, knowing that there’s no way to win such an argument among a Quebecois and a couple from the ‘Burgh, and how brutal it would be to try.
So when the cabbie turned and asked me through his thick French accent, “How about you, sir? Who do you think is best, Lemieux or Gretzky?” I took a deep breath.
“I don’t really follow hockey,” I smartly said. My wife just smiled.
Now here we are, in the Stanley Cup Final of 2017, with Mario owning the Penguins and his former tenant and current captain Sidney Crosby going for a third Stanley Cup in his fourth trip to the Final.
On the eve of the Final, NBCSN did a fascinating and entertaining roundtable hosted by Doc Emrick. It featured Gretzky, Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Crosby and – a tad out of place and appearing to be quite awestruck – Jonathan Toews.
It had already begun by then, this notion that has become louder and more popular, that Crosby is – or that he will become with another Cup – one of the Top-5 players of all-time.
To which I holler, “Whoa, hold your horses!”
Crosby is the best player of his generation, without a doubt, a slam-dunk future Hall-of-Famer, and he will be among the short list of all-timers when he’s done playing, if not sooner.
But Top-5? Now, at age 29? Isn’t that a bit premature? Do people have such short memories?
I’m going to just say this right off the bat: Crosby has to accomplish a fair amount more, or at least play at this very high level for several more years before he’s better than my fifth all-timer, Mark Messier.
Or my sixth all-timer, Jaromir Jagr. And perhaps throw in the likes of Maurice “Rocket” Richard, among others.
My Top-4 is pretty simple:
4. Gordie Howe (who Gretzky considers No. 1).
You can dispute the order all you want (as long as Gretzky is first). The Great One retired as the holder of 61 NHL scoring records, including most goals (894), assists (1,962) and points (2,856). Gretzky statistically dominated his sport to a greater extent than Michael Jordan did in his, or Babe Ruth once did in his, or when Tiger Woods once did in his.
On most of the notable lists, he’s not just first. For example, in single-season goal scoring, Gretzky is first (92), second (87), eighth (73) and 10th (71).
In single-season assists, he’s first (163), second (135), third (125), fourth (122), fifth (121), sixth (120), seventh (118), tied for eighth with Lemieux (114), 10th (109 twice) and tied for 12th with Orr (102).
In single-season points, he’s first (215), second (212), third (208), fourth (205), sixth (196), seventh (183), tied for eighth with Lemieux (168), ninth (164) and 10th (163).
He also won four Stanley Cups, and I could go on about his 51-game point streak or scoring 50 goals in the first 39 games of a season … end of story.
If not for Gretzky, Lemieux would have been Gretzky, simple as that, with some of the greatest individual seasons by anyone not named Gretzky … and two Cups.
Orr was simply the best player to ever play the game until Gretzky arrived, and a defenseman no less. He was almost solely responsible for Boston’s two Cups.
Howe held the career scoring records Gretzky broke, and was Mr. Hockey. He just did everything in and for the game.
When we get down to No. 5, I don’t think at this point Crosby is there yet. As I said, he probably will be some day. Crosby plays hard in all three zones, goes to the tough areas of the ice, gives as much as he takes, and does it all with immense skill. But so did Messier.
Right now, in my book, Messier – six Stanley Cups and second all-time in points when he retired – is fifth. I think all the legendary games, and all the legitimate discussion of Messier the leader, and about the intangibles, tend to make you forget what a great player he was. He was a combo of speed, power, toughness, and skill. He was as good a player as Crosby, in my opinion, if not better, and much more accomplished.
Jagr, a two-time Cup champ, this past season passed Messier for sole possession of second all-time with 1,914 points (in 1,711 games) – despite playing three seasons in the KHL. On the day of Gretzky’s final game in 1999, Jagr scored the OT-winner to beat the Rangers. Gretzky called him the best player in the game. I don’t think Crosby right now is better than Jagr was in his prime.
So we’ll see. Sid the Kid might make the Top-5 someday, when he’s no longer the Kid, when we add up all his Cups, his Hart and Conn Smythe Trophies and his Olympic and World Cup medals.
Right now this talk about him being amongst the best five in the history of the game, to me, is just talk. It’s too early.