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Who were the fastest Maple Leaf (and other) NHL skaters of all time?


Speed has always been one of the most important attributes for a hockey player.  (See 1960s Chicago speedster Kenny Wharram on the right in action against Bill Gadsby and the Red Wings.  Wharram was part of the famed Chicago "Scooter Line".) If you don’t have it, you can still make it to the professional ranks.  That said, those that don’t have speed as part of their game generally need to possess or develop a number of other attributes that compensate for that missing part of their repertoire.  It could be grit, determination, vision, smarts.

And, there have been any number of players over the years who could really fly, but they didn’t “make it”, for a variety of reasons.  They couldn’t finish, couldn’t check, lacked the will needed to compete night after night at the highest levels.

On balance, though, speed is a huge asset.  Nowadays, we see it in someone like Ovechkin.  Oh, he brings many other qualities to the rink most nights, including a passion for the game.  But he can skate well—and fast, very fast.

Yes, it usually makes a difference.

For hockey fans like myself, whose memory of the league goes back to the late 1950s, there have been a number of guys who really stood out because of how they could skate.  For their time, they were the fastest guys on ice.

1960s

Three yesteryear Montreal stars stick out, in my memory at least, as the fastest guys in hockey at the time:  Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom and Yvan Cournoyer.  Billy Hicke (left) could really skate, too. They were all awfully fast for that late 1950’s, early ‘60s era.  If I had to pick one guy in a race, when they were all moving at top speed, I’d have to think Cournoyer was flat out the fastest of the four—and maybe in the league for the better part of the 1960s.

Bobby Hull was probably the fastest guy in Chicago, along with Wharram.  His combination, for the time, of speed and power (and blonde hair) earned him the nickname "The Golden Jet".   In Detroit, Gordie Howe was a powerful skater, but by the ‘60s, was not the fastest.  Paul Henderson (the future Leaf) probably was.

Toronto, as strong a team as they were through the first half of the ‘60s, weren’t a particularly fast team.  Dickie Duff could fly, but he was traded to the Rangers and later starred for Montreal. Unless I’m forgetting somebody, Mike Walton was the most explosive and probably the fastest.  Dave Keon was an elite skater.  Ron Ellis, straight ahead, was the other Leaf that springs to mind.

Of course, the guy who was likely the fastest thing on skates was Bobby Orr, who jumped to the NHL at the age of 18 in 1966.  Despite an assortment of knee ailments, he could fly and had that “extra gear” that everyone likes to talk about. (Orr wasn't just fast; the way he moved on the ice, his quick stops and starts made him virtually impossible to defend.)

1970s

The game was changing in the ‘70s, and more guys could really skate. Orr aside, I thought Buffalo’s phenomenal Gilbert Perreault was in a class by himself, in terms of speed and skating ability.

In Montreal, Bob Gainey came aboard in 1973, and while he was not a big goal scorer, he sure could move.  Of course, Montreal always had plenty of guys who could skate— and skate fast.  Murray Wilson could flat-out fly in the ‘70s for the Habs, too.  Mark Napier played for Montreal for a while, too, after his time with the WHA (Toronto Toros?), and he was in the upper echelon of skaters.

I thought Freddie Stanfield with Boston in the early ‘70s could skate, but I don’t know if he was quite in the class of some other guys.  Johnny McKenzie was fast, but again, maybe not a “top ten” in the league speedster.

In the modern era, a number of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers (Messier, Anderson, Coffey, etc.) were explosive, for sure.  Was anyone ever faster than Vancouver's Pavel Bure in his prime?

I’m sure I’m missing guys, including some Leaf players.  Who do you remember from those decades, and also the 1980s and '90s, as the “fastest  guys on ice”?

2 comments:

  1. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 17, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    Watched some Leafs classic games and I was amazed how that Grabovski reminds me a lot of Mike "Shaky" Walton. Both processed some similarities to their game: explosive speed, more North and South than East and West, and have a strong shot. Love watching Shaky play with Brit Selby, their speed seem to keep the opposition on their toes! To bad that Selby couldn't put his career together because he sure looked like he could've been a strong player. Other fast player that I remember in order: Montreal Guy Lafeur, LA/Det Marcel Dione, Butch Goring, Pitts/NY Greg Polis, Rod Gilbert, NY/ Bos wanted the Leafs in 73 to draft Rick Middleton, TOR John Anderson, Cal Theo Fleury.

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  2. Hi Long suffering...Interesting comparison with Walton. I had posted on Walton and some similarities with Kessel a year or so ago, but I like your perspective on Mike and Grabovski.
    Selby was a guy who I thought was actually better in his second go-round with the Leafs than the first, even though he won the Calder in his initial season with the blue and white. He could skate, for sure.
    Polis was a bit "lost" playing in Pittsburgh in those days, not a big hockey market then. Wasn't that just before Pierre Larouche arrived? Or the same era?

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