Wayne Gretzky’s place in hockey history is an interesting issue that is hotly debated. Gretzky is widely regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time; however, there are those who would argue that Mario Lemieux was the greatest of all time. The older purists may argue that Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr were the greatest players of all time.
Gretzky’s detractors often cite the high-scoring decade of the 1980s as the reason for Gretzky’s perceived greatness on the ice. While it is true that the 1980s was a high-scoring decade, the fact remains that Gretzky made a mockery of his peers in the scoring races. Everybody had the same opportunities to stockpile the points in that high-scoring era; however, Gretzky ran away with the scoring titles with ease. In the 1985-1986 season, Mario Lemieux finished second in the NHL with 141 points; Wayne Gretzky had 163 ASSISTS (finished with 215 points).
Gretzky’s detractors also criticize him and say he played in an era where he had special rules in which he was not allowed to be touched. I’ll be blunt: that is a load of BULL. Players took liberties with stars like Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Stastny and others anytime they had the opportunity to do so. The reason Gretzky often was not flat on his back was because he was one of the most elusive players on the ice.
Gretzky was a fantastic skater with superb agility and anticipation (his speed was also greater than he received credit for). Gretzky knew how to roll with the checks and make would-be hitters miss with a quick change of direction and subtle moves. Gretzky’s passing also made him very difficult to hit, as he had a knack for knowing the right time to get rid of the puck and search for open ice.
Gretzky detractors also appear to be under the illusion that he was not as effective in the 1990s as he was in the 1980s. Obviously, Gretzky did not post the earth-shattering numbers in the 1990s that he did in the 1980s; however, scoring was down on a league-wide basis in the 1990s. It would be impossible to ascertain Gretzky’s value on the ice in the 1990s by comparing his 1990s statistics to his 1980s statistics. First of all, Gretzky was in his prime and at his peak in the 1980s; secondly, the 1980s was a higher-scoring decade.
Gretzky’s value on the ice in the 1990s can be measured by comparing his production in the 1990s to the production of other top stars in the 1990s. Displayed below are the statistics of some of the top NHLers from the 1989-1990 season through the 1998-1999 season (Gretzky’s final NHL season).
As you can see from the table above, Lemieux was in a league of his own in the 1990s. Lemieux was in his prime and at the peak of his career; unfortunately, cancer and back problems plagued Lemieux and forced him into early retirement at the young age of 31.
When the Edmonton Oilers traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings after the 1987-1988 season, Gretzky was leaving a Stanley Cup dynasty to play for one of the worst teams in the NHL at that time. Nevertheless, Gretzky found great success with the Kings and turned that franchise around.
Despite playing for a lesser team than what he had in Edmonton, and despite being past his prime in the 1990s, Gretzky dominated the 1990s and outscored younger players who were in their primes in that decade.
The final season of Gretzky’s career is the only season in which he failed to score one point per game.
Gretzky’s dominance in the 1990s should cement his legacy as the Great One. Lemieux is the only talent who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Gretzky. Although Gretzky was past his prime in the 1990s and played for lesser teams in the 1990s, he was still dominant on the ice.
Gretzky’s detractors cannot use the high-scoring 1980s to downplay his scoring because other stars in that same time period had the same opportunities to stockpile points; furthermore, his detractors cannot downplay his value on the ice in the 1990s, as the above statistics clearly show Gretzky was elite in the 1990s as well (despite being past his prime and playing on weaker teams).
Fans will continue to debate Gretzky’s place in hockey history; however, those who choose to downplay his on-ice achievements will only look foolish, as the older and lesser Gretzky outplayed many younger players in their primes in the lower-scoring 1990s.