There are quite a few hockey observers from yesteryear who will suggest that Gordie Howe was the best player produced in the NHL in its 50 or so years (1917-1967) and that Wayne Gretzky fit that description over the past (not quite) 50 years.
While I absolutely respect the views of those who make that argument, that’s not quite my personal view (Bobby Orr is the best player I’ve ever seen from any era. And despite watching some tremendous players over the past 45 years, I’ve still not seen anyone who commanded a game the way he did, forget how he also changed the game…)
But isn’t that one of the tremendous things about being a hockey fan? We can appreciate that many different players—from Aurel Joliat and Babe Pratt, from Doug Harvey and Denis Potvin, to Rocket Richard, Bobby Hull, Mark Messier and Sidney Crosby (not to mention Mario Lemieux and Jean Beliveau) and many others have left indelible memories for those of us who love the game—are important in understanding the history of the sport.
But I was thinking specifically about Howe and Gretzky (who I have written about in the past here; check out their names on the right-hand section of the site to see some earlier posts…) recently because Wayne has been in the news a bit, I suppose. It brought me back to a time early in my humble and relatively short-lived broadcasting career when I was working at a small radio station east of Toronto. I covered a late summer announcement (prior to NHL training camp, as I recall) where both Howe and Gretzky were on hand. I don’t honestly recall what the announcement or event was all about, nut I sure remember being in the same small hotel room as two of hockey’s biggest-ever names. (See a photo from that day above left.)
It was all very informal. I did a short interview with Wayne (I had also done a number of one-on-ones with him while I was at other stations previously; you can actually hear a snippet of one of them if you click on his name at right or look under the audio archive section of this site…) but did not have the opportunity to speak with Howe.
Nonetheless, it was fascinating as a young guy (I was probably 27 or so at the time) to have the opportunity to see one of hockey’s true legends (Howe, who had just completed his last season in the NHL in 1979-’80 at the startling age of 51 or 52, I can’t quite remember), as well as Gretzky, who was already emerging as one of the most creative and dynamic players in the game at the time.
Gretzky, of course, went on to lead the Oilers (populated with some other pretty good players, too, eh?) to a number of Stanley Cups, and also rejuvenate the LA Kings in a HOF career that will likely never be surpassed, at least statistically.
I have great respect and appreciation for the history of hockey. There are so many great players who have contributed to making it what it remains to this day. I can’t name them all, but many of you no doubt have names of old-time (or current) greats that pop to mind that stand out for you.
But as ambassadors and “good guys”, Howe and Gretzky must stand at, or very near the top of the class.