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Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr: who wins five on five?

It’s funny, as a player, I admired Wayne Gretzky as much as the next guy.  I first saw him play up in Sault Ste. Marie when I was a young guy in broadcasting during the 1977-'78 OHL season.  I got to know him a bit through his first Junior coach, Muzz Macpherson, who I worked with at one of the local radio stations.

Gretzky as a player?  Remarkable talent.  A guy who blended an amazing work ethic with superb instincts and natural gifts. (And on a personal level, he was very helpful to me as an aspiring broadcaster, particularly whenever I approached him for lengthy, in-depth interviews.)

But I’m probably in the minority of those who wasn’t particularly interested that he was turning 50.  It’s nice and everything, but lots of quietly outstanding people reach 50 without fanfare. He was a really good hockey player in his day.  But is reaching "50" worth all this reminiscing?  Well, I guess any reason for a celebration is worth it, eh?

I was committed to not falling into the trap to write about Gretzky on this “occasion”.  Nothing against him—it’s just that it’s being somewhat over-done.  Why bother, I figured? (see the shot of Gretzky, above  right.  He signed the Sports Illustrated cover for my then young son back in the early 1980s.)

But then today I was running errands and flipping the radio dial, and heard someone say, “who would win a five-on-five game between Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky”?

So, I’m breaking my promise to myself, I guess.

Now, I’m not a big one for comparisons.  For the record, those of you who follow this site know I enjoy writing about a current player, and saying, “hey, he reminds me in a way of so and so from the 1960s…” or whatever.  In that sense, yes, I like to compare.

But what I mean is that I’m not a big fan of these “who’s better” debates.  I tried not to fall into that trap when I was a kid and people would argue, “who’s better—Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard” and later, “who's faster, Dave Keon or Henri Richard”?

My belief really and truly is, they were/are all fantastic players and I was and am loathe to try to claim one guy is “better” than the next.  They played with different players, on different teams, for different coaches and in different “systems”.  (Bobby Hull, for example, played in a wide-open system in Chicago. Frank Mahovlich played in a much more up and down, checking system under Punch Imlach in Toronto back in the 1960s.)

Now yes, I have said here, and I believe, that Orr (shown at left with Team Canada in 1976) was the finest all-around player I’ve ever seen, and I stand by that.  That’s my observation, my “opinion” and only that.  That is not, though, to compare him to anyone else.  Simply that, in my mind, Orr was that good, certainly in his era, at least.

Now, when it comes to the above-mentioned “fantasy” game between Orr and Gretzky and “who would win” (assuming they both had outstanding goalies in net from whatever era we want—you pick), yes, I do have an “opinion”.

Orr wins by a big margin.

Is this a knock on Gretzky?  Hardly.  We all know the guy was amazing.  Add whatever descriptive words you want to add.

But if you had a team of "Orrs" literally versus a team of "Gretzkys", you’d have two players with extraordinary hockey sense, for sure.  Starting and stopping and darting at full speed, check mark.  Uncanny vision and passing ability, for sure. Both were marvelous in those areas, Gretzky maybe the best of all time.

But while Wayne could skate and shift and move, Orr had extraordinary speed.  Extra gears.  So did Wayne, but Bobby was smoother.

Even if I conceded that Wayne could maybe keep up with Orr in a foot race, the obvious distinction is that Gretzky was a forward and Orr was a defenseman.  Orr, to me, was a d-man who could easily have been a forward, played any position.  Gretzky could not have played defense.  I mean sure, he had the skill to play the position, but Orr hammered guys, fought, blocked all kinds of shots, played dangerously.  That wasn’t Gretzky.

So the physical dimension and Orr’s raw speed and ability to play any position gives him the decided advantage in this make-believe “five-on-five” contest.

Not everyone will agree, I’m sure, and that’s, as I often say, part of the fun in being a fan.  If we all believed the same thing, cheered for the same team, had the same favorite player, it would be pretty dull stuff.

For fun, let me know your opinion on this one!



  1. Man...

    My first instinct was to go with Orr, for the reasons you outlined.

    That said, Gretzky had two areas of the game where he was better than anyone else who'd ever played: his ability to get the puck to an open man, and his almost uncanny ability to know where the puck was going to end up and get there first. Five Gretzky's who could do both of those things? I'm not sure anyone, even Orr, could get the puck from them.

  2. Hi DGB...I can't argue with your reference to Gretzky's gifts in those areas. That's what makes this kind of discussion fun. Two phenomenal players. You couldn't go wrong with either of these guys.

  3. Pond hockey? Gretzky wins hands down. NHL hockey? Orr dominates. The physical aspect of Orr's game carries the day. Gretzky's team is going to get some beautiful '72 CCCP goals for sure but Orr's winning the battle for any rebounds or loose pucks. About the only way I would see it going the other way is if the game was played on an Olympic sized rink then 99 might be able to control the puck indefinitely. Hmmmmm . . . depends a bit on who's playing net as well, a good puckhandling goaltender would shift thing in Gretzky's favour a bit as well I think, making some good outlet passes. Maybe Orr gets a few more penalties too . . . Nope, I'm still going with Orr.

    Cheers, good question.

  4. Thanks buddha hat. Pond hockey- now that would be fun to watch between those two guys, for sure. They could both skate all day with the puck. The game may never end-and what entertainment. Thanks.