Wayne Gretsky At 50: Putting Him In Perspective

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posted on Jan, 26 2011 @ 03:44 PM
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Wayne Gretsky just had his fiftieth birthday and sports talk shows have been noting the occasion with praise for the "Great One", reminiscences of his career and phone calls from fans talking about what Gretsky meant to them.

He is the all time NHL points leader and would be even if one only counted assists and left out his more than 800 goals. It is hard to quibble about a player who dominated at every stage of his career and who, even as a child was playing in leagues against players three and four years older than him.

He wasn't a great skater. He had a lumbering, labored looking skating style . . . but he usually beat the other guy to the puck. He had an almost telepathic level of anticipation that more than made up for any deficiency in pure physical skill. His shot looked blistering at times but that effect was undoubtedly derived partly from his sense of anticipation, knowing when to take a shot. Many of his goals were scored in odd ways and from odd angles.

He racked up points like a pinball wizard.

Bobby Clark, one of the hardest working stars in the NHL at the time, when asked about the newly arrived kid and what he was doing to the league scoring so many points, said, "It's obscene."

It was definitely different.

Gordie Howe said, "He's the only player I know who plays the game 90% from the neck up."

That is the secret of Wayne Gretsky. He put more brain power into the game than any player before or since.

A fan who phoned in to one of the radio programs talking about Gretsky, said that he revolutionized the game and changed every part of it.

I disagree with this.

The only real innovation that I saw Gretsky bring to the game was his habit of setting up behind the opposition goal (They used to call that spot his "office".) to quarterback the attack from there. And that innovation was really very idiosyncratic. He wasn't the first to do it. It was just that he did it time and again and to great effect. Not everyone can do it well and it hasn't really become a standard play in the NHL.

Being in my early sixties, I had the great privilege of watching hockey during what for me will always be the "golden age" of the game, the 1950's and 60's. This was the time of the "six team league" with its great stars, some of whom played in the later expanded NHL into their fifties. Few players at the elite level in any sport can do this. We are talking about players on the level, in hockey, of someone like Pele in soccer.

The game that was played at that time no longer exists. It no longer exists for a variety of reasons, the biggest one being economic.

It is difficult to communicate to people today, who did not see that game, how different it was in so many ways. It was a game in which there were no "enforcers". The ethics of the time demanded that one be one's own enforcer. The game's greatest stars were also its toughest players.

The game depended on puck control and puck control depended on high levels of skill in stick-handling and passing.

The "shoot in" did not exist as a play. A team shooting the puck into the opposition zone and chasing it would be booed off the ice. The only time the puck was played like that was to clear it while playing shorthanded during a penalty.

The players, including goaltenders, did not wear masks or helmets. The padding that players wore was much less bulky and much less protective. There were only wooden sticks, no composite materials were used and few players warped the blades of their sticks until people like Bobby Hull realized that doing so could give him more control over his 105 mile per hour slapshot.

Skates were very unpadded by today's standards. Receiving a puck in the ankle would fell a player instantly and leave him unable to skate for a few minutes. Overall the game was more dangerous but in compensation, players played with more attention to avoiding accidental injury caused by careless manouvers and careless use of the stick.

The was no collegiality among players from different teams, who often hated one another and who would not speak to one another if they met outside the rink. Red Wing, Gordie Howe's friendship with Johnny Bower, of the Maple Leafs, was an exception to the rule.

There was no player's association and players generally lived and played in dread of being sent down to the minor leagues. Sports psychology and head games were not played by coaches. One glare was all that was needed to send a message to a player to improve his performance, or else.

With all due respect to Wayne Gretsky, here are the major factors, in no particular order, that brought changes to the game of hockey in my time as a fan:

1. League Expansion.

The expansion of the league beyond the original six teams effectively killed the game that I grew up watching. The dilution of skill in the game introduced a period of darkness from which we are only now recovering.

The thug tactics, the enforcers, the "shoot in" were all developments resulting from league expansion and were all tactics designed to allow unskilled players to compete with highly skilled ones. The game that resulted was an insult to fans of the six team league.

League expansion is also a big reason for the phenomenal career of Wayne Gretsky. Gretsky's point totals are not unlike the phenomenal scores of German Luftwaffe aces on the eastern front during the second world war, who shot down over 300 enemy aircraft. Doing the same thing against the RAF would not be so easy.

John Ferguson, of the Montreal Canadiens, was one of the toughest players ever to play in the NHL. He tells a story of Gordie Howe in which he basically says,

"I left him alone. The one time I really tried to cause him trouble he hooked my tongue for nine stitches."

To succeed on Howe's level in the old six team league, Gretsky would have to be that kind of player. He wasn't.

2. Russian Strategic Innovation.

During the first "summit series" between Canada and the Soviet Union, the Russians rocked the hockey world with a highly mobile five man attacking unit that depended on great skating, great passing and total puck control. These tactics are typically seen in soccer where ball control is practically a fetish with some teams.

This innovative "team play" was poison to a Canadian system that depended on the individual skills of virtuoso players. If it had not been for dirty play on the part of the Canadians in breaking the ankle of Soviet star, Valeri Kharlamov, the Canadians would surely have lost that series.

In any event, that outstanding Russian team and its coaches changed strategic thinking in hockey forever.

3. Bobby Orr's Attacking Defenceman.

Orr's attacking style of play, as a defenseman created a whole new role model of how that position can be played and had a nice synchronicity with the Russian strategic innovations mentioned above. Hockey was profoundly changed by his new idea. In effect, he created a new position that one can play on a hockey team.

4. The Players' Association.

The players' association brought about a great change in the sociology of the game. It's hard to sum up the effect it had in just a few words. It is closely connected to the effect that league expansion had on the game.

Both of these phenomena were related to turning an atavistic North American cultural artifact into a big business. Players were no longer sworn enemies. They were now colleagues. The law of the jungle no longer applied in hockey and we entered the era of the sports psychologist.

5. The Coddled Superstar.

"Terrible" Ted Lindsay got into a lot of trouble with his old linemate, Gordie Howe, when he said that Howe was no longer good enough to play in the NHL. This was long before Howe retired!

Howe was the first of the coddled superstars. In the old league he would have been brutalized out of the game, as eventually every player in that league was. In the six team league, the law of the jungle prevailed.

One of the most exciting things about that game was the brief period of four or five years when the old lions struggled with and were eventually vanquished by the young lions of the game.

Businessmen and business considerations and a violation of the spirit of that old game by an old warrior who could not let go, led to the phenomenon of the coddled, protected superstar. That was really the stake through the heart of the old, savage, beautiful game.

So, Happy Birthday, Great One! I'm sure you know better than many of your fans, that there are still people around, who can take an accurate measure of your very great career.
edit on 26-1-2011 by ipsedixit because: (no reason given)




posted on Jan, 26 2011 @ 04:14 PM
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Gotta love the great one. Rock on. S&F!



posted on Jan, 26 2011 @ 04:26 PM
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One of the comments that I have heard numerous times about why hockey players (at the time) hadn't developed the prima-donna attitude seen in so many other sports was because of Gretzky. Even towards the end of his career when his star had begun to set, his presence on the ice, the locker room and within the game as a whole provided temperence.

It's hard to have an 'I'm all that' attitude when the man who is widely considered the best to ever play the game is meekly sitting beside you.

Debate on his impact on the sport will always be a conversation point for hockey fans. Like all sports there will always be differing opinions on who is the best player, best team etc. With Gretzky though I think a sports-castor on TSN summed it up best years ago...

"When people refer to The Great One, everyone knows who it is."

I still remember when the story broke that he was being traded from Edmonton to LA...I heard the story while still in bed and thought I must still be asleep and dreaming.

Happy Birthday Wayne.
edit on 26-1-2011 by {davinci} because: (no reason given)



posted on Jan, 26 2011 @ 04:50 PM
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Originally posted by {davinci}
One of the comments that I have heard numerous times about why hockey players (at the time) hadn't developed the prima-donna attitude seen in so many other sports was because of Gretzky. Even towards the end of his career when his star had begun to set, his presence on the ice, the locker room and within the game as a whole provided temperence.


He was upholding the tradition of that, I think. He definitely contributed to that attitude. He was very important in helping Mario Lemieux to take his status as one of the game's greatest players more seriously and to realize that the whole country of Canada needed Lemieux to put his shoulder to the wheel on national teams, etc.

Gretsky was exemplary in those ways throughout his career.
edit on 26-1-2011 by ipsedixit because: (no reason given)



posted on Jan, 26 2011 @ 07:47 PM
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Hockey is a true warrior sport, with endless possibilities and outcomes. The salary cap makes it the most competitive league in the world as talent is spread out across thirty teams; GM's and management have to be way smarter to formulate a financially acceptable roster, while strategically fitting in role players. It's played at a much faster pace than any other team sport out there. It's harder hitting than any other contact team sport out there due to the high velocity of play. Hockey players (although I'm a huge soccer fan and play) don't dive and roll around, they don't get cut or black eyes/broken noses and leave the game (baseball/basketball), and it doesn't stop every ten seconds (football), and it certainly is full of steroids and gangster culture (all the mentioned). There's no where to run or hide, and respect is earned because if you behave disrespectfully you'll pay the price. Players battle it out and have a huge respect for each other when it's all said and done. Hockey is the game of guts where you truly have to unify as a team to succeed.



posted on Jan, 26 2011 @ 07:53 PM
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Oh..and Happy Birthday Wayne; a true legend indeed.

However, we can't compare this generation of hockey to his and preceding ones, even the great one stated this. It Players must be compared relative to their own generation (Gretz said that in his day there were really only 2 or 3 really athletic goalies in the league..the training techniques and athleticism of goaltenders has truly evolved). The speed, physicality, and intelligent aspects of the game have progressed greatly.



posted on Jan, 27 2011 @ 01:40 AM
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reply to post by LipanConjuring86
 

I agree that one can't really compare players from different eras. They all played under such different circumstances.

As far as goalies go, I prefer the goaltenders from the pre-butterfly stance, six team league era. There is nothing like watching some of the old footage of a great, maskless, stand-up goaltender like Johnny Bower in action. For this thread I tried to find one sequence I'd seen, of him kicking out or blocking something like four rebounds in the space of a few seconds, without going down on his knees. That my friend is athleticism and raw courage.

As an old timer, I detest the butterfly stance. To me it is a cheat. The sort of thing you would see an infant do, when learning to play goal. Real goal tending should be done standing up. The butterfly stance should be illegal. I want to see a game of athletic skill, not a game of cheats and calculations of odds.

I should add that I think the game is on it's way back to its old skill level. The sorts of rule changes put in place in recent times favor skill over thuggery and that's a great sign of things to come. It means that there are starting to be enough talented players to populate a league of the current size of the NHL.

Another major factor of change in the game in my time would be the coming of the European players to the league. They are the only reason that the expanded NHL has the high quality of play that it does, because North America itself simply cannot produce skilled players in numbers high enough to populate a league of the NHL's current size. I feel very good about the current state of the game. We may yet see another golden age.
edit on 27-1-2011 by ipsedixit because: (no reason given)



posted on Jan, 27 2011 @ 03:45 AM
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reply to post by ipsedixit
 


I get it. You think that the skill level during the days of the Original Six was higher than during Gretzky's day, when skill levels got "watered down" by expansion.

However, quite emphatically, you are wrong. Although there were only six teams in the league during your hayday as a fan of the game, the players that populated the league were all relative pylons...compared to the time when the Great One played, and certainly compared to the skaters of today.

Just take a look at any of the "highlight reels" from the 50's and 60's. Stiff-legged skaters, weak shots, lack of lateral movement, ponderously slow puck movement. The goaltenders of the time had very limited mobility, slow reflexes and poor positional play.

The truth of the matter is that that few, if any, of the players of that era would be able to play in the AHL today, let alone the NHL.

Skill levels, skating in particular, took a quantum leap with players like Orr, LaFleur, Keon, Perreault and others.

Gretzky and Lemieux took skill to stratospheric levels. If these two players had played in the 50's and 60's they would both have scored about 4,000 points in their careers. Gretzky would have had 350 point seasons back in your day...assuming somebody else from that glorious goon era did not cut him into twenty pieces.

Look, I understand that it is great to look fondly back on the good old days...I was around then too.

But this idea that the "greats" of old were somehow superior players (on a raw skill level) to those in either Gretzky's era, or in comparison to today's players just does not hold water. Sorry.

And...this is true of Basketball, Football, Baseball, Track & Field, Swimming...take your pick. Modern era athletes are bigger, faster, stronger, more skilled, better fed, better trained than at any time in history.

Would Wayne score as many point in today's NHL? Probably not...but I would suspect he would still be head and shoulders above everyone else on a year by year basis (but maybe not...and we will never know).



posted on Jan, 27 2011 @ 11:12 AM
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reply to post by mobiusmale
 

I think that there is no doubt that average skill level in the NHL dropped drastically as a result of expansion. I don't think this is seriously disputed by anybody. How could it be otherwise? It's just a statistical fact. When you move out from the center of the bell curve the average of the values drops.

Your interpretation of old film clips from the six team league era is unsophisticated. You have to remember those games were played in an era when open ice hitting was still part of the game. Watching Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretsky cartwheeling through the air in the original league would be great fun for a short time until those guys learned what the practical speed limit was in that sort of game.

I grant you that over time in any sort of sport, performance levels increase. We are getting bigger, better, smarter, faster, at least in the time that records have been kept about such things. Gretsky's status though is a product of dilution of the talent level in the game and one other circumstance that was an unfortunate accident of history, and that was the deterioration of Bobby Orr's knees.

Orr is one player who could have taken similar advantage of NHL expansion to rack up huge point totals, if he had had a longer career of playing in good health. Being an older fan of the game when Gretsky came into the league, I remember being sorry to have been cheated by circumstances of potentially great confrontations between Gretsky and Orr.

Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson's track coach said that it was obvious from looking at graphs of track performances that international competitors in track and field, absent any other explanatory factor for sudden increases in performance levels, had started to use performance enhancing drugs.

Similarly Gretsky's abnormally high point totals can be explained by the obvious factor that had changed in the NHL, the dilution of talent levels caused by expansion.


But this idea that the "greats" of old were somehow superior players (on a raw skill level) to those in either Gretzky's era, or in comparison to today's players just does not hold water. Sorry.


I don't disagree with that. I do believe that the average talent level in the six team league was far superior to that of the expansion era and correspondingly, I believe that the game itself was far superior.

The expansion era, with its low average level of talent, its thuggery and the "protection racket" used to make life easy for the stars of the game, benefited Wayne Gretsky and others immensely. It ballooned many people's point totals, none more so than Gretsky.

The NHL would love it if everybody believed that they weren't being ripped off during the expansion years and those who worship at the shrine of Gretsky also would prefer that their idol's career not be examined too rationally.
edit on 27-1-2011 by ipsedixit because: (no reason given)



posted on Jan, 28 2011 @ 06:38 AM
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Originally posted by ipsedixit
reply to post by mobiusmale
 

I think that there is no doubt that average skill level in the NHL dropped drastically as a result of expansion. I don't think this is seriously disputed by anybody. How could it be otherwise? It's just a statistical fact. When you move out from the center of the bell curve the average of the values drops.


I know that you will want to remain solidly adhered to this old saw about the skill level being much higher during the Original Six days (versus the Gretzky era), and I would certainly allow that in the year or two after the 1967 expansion, skills levels would have to drop given that, within that short span, relatively the same pool of players would have been available. If anybody should have lit up the league it should have been in the 1967 to, say, 1970 period.

At that time, about 96% of the players in league were from Canada. By the time that Gretzky arrived on the scene in 1979, non-Canadian players made up about 15% of the League. The talent pool had grown and changed. By the end of his career (1999), non-Canadian players made up nearly 45% of the total.

There is no debate...at least I don't think there is...that this influx of European and American players significantly increased the skill levels of the players in the league.

So, although it is quaint and nostalgic to hold to the idea that the skill level pre-expansion was higher than that in the League by the time Gretzky arrived - and throughout his 20 year career - is just not really supportable.


Your interpretation of old film clips from the six team league era is unsophisticated. You have to remember those games were played in an era when open ice hitting was still part of the game. Watching Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretsky cartwheeling through the air in the original league would be great fun for a short time until those guys learned what the practical speed limit was in that sort of game.


My "interpretation" is spot on I am afraid. During the 50's and 60's the players in the NHL (with few exceptions) could not skate. They were slow and clumsy. They were smaller and weaker. They lacked mobility...in comparison to even completely unheralded players of this era.

They were the best of their time, of course. Some of them were superb natural athletes no doubt. If some of them had been born later, and been exposed to the kind of training, conditioning, diet, etc., also no doubt a number of them would have been able to compete.

I think what you note about Mario might be true to some extent. He would have been bounced around pretty good...except that he would have been something of a behemoth up against 50/60's players.

Gretzky, on the other hand, was virtually unhittable (as anyone who ever played against him will tell you). He had protection against goon tactics, for sure, but players who tried even normal "finishing the check" play against him, found him there one second and disappeared the next. Against the lumbering opponents he would have faced 20 or 30 years earlier, he would have been like a greased pig.


I grant you that over time in any sort of sport, performance levels increase. We are getting bigger, better, smarter, faster, at least in the time that records have been kept about such things. Gretsky's status though is a product of dilution of the talent level in the game and one other circumstance that was an unfortunate accident of history, and that was the deterioration of Bobby Orr's knees.

Orr is one player who could have taken similar advantage of NHL expansion to rack up huge point totals, if he had had a longer career of playing in good health. Being an older fan of the game when Gretsky came into the league, I remember being sorry to have been cheated by circumstances of potentially great confrontations between Gretsky and Orr.


Agreed. We were all cheated of what would have been epic battles between Orr and Gretzky. It is a huge shame that arthroscopic surgery was not available in Orr's time. Orr redefined the game. Gretzky also no doubt also benefited from the fact that he played many years with another great skating offensive defenceman in Paul Coffey.


But this idea that the "greats" of old were somehow superior players (on a raw skill level) to those in either Gretzky's era, or in comparison to today's players just does not hold water. Sorry.



The expansion era, with its low average level of talent, its thuggery and the "protection racket" used to make life easy for the stars of the game, benefited Wayne Gretsky and others immensely. It ballooned many people's point totals, none more so than Gretsky.


As someone recently pointed out, if people think that frequently skating with Dave Semenko on their wing was a recipe for inflating point totals, they need to think a little longer. While this provided insurance against people taking liberties with Gretzky, it certainly took away passing options for him - and Gretzky has the highest assist total of any player in history, so how much higher would his totals have been if he had not so often had to effectively play 4 on 5.


The NHL would love it if everybody believed that they weren't being ripped off during the expansion years and those who worship at the shrine of Gretsky also would prefer that their idol's career not be examined too rationally.


I enjoy discussing matters such as these with someone who is obviously as well versed in the game as you are. But the simple fact of the matter is that every so often, in every sport, in every branch of science, in every walk of life, a truly extraordinary individual comes along. An individual so extraordinary that his/her accomplishments are almost beyond belief.

Wayne Gretzky is one such individual (as is Michael Jordon, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, etc.). When he left the game, he held 61 records...12 years later he still holds 60 of them.

No hockey player in history...no professional athlete in history...can even remotely compare to him or his list of accomplishments. His accomplishments spanned a generation of players...players who were head and shoulders above the capabilities of the players in the Original Six.

So I have to say, rationally there is not other perspective...are no rational set of arguments that can be put forth... other than those that would hoist Wayne Gretzky head and shoulders above all players of any era.

Will there someday be a player better than the Great One? Who knows. But if he is to exist, then he is either still an unknown little lad toiling away on a rink somewhere in obscurity...or still just a twinkle some future mother's eye - certainly not anyone portrayed in some grainy black and white photo in the Hall of Fame.



posted on Jan, 28 2011 @ 09:25 AM
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Gretzky, Kurri, Anderson, Messier, Coffey, Fuhr... just thinking of those days makes me wet, hell and I wasn't even born yet.



posted on Jan, 28 2011 @ 10:49 AM
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Originally posted by higns07
Gretzky, Kurri, Anderson, Messier, Coffey, Fuhr... just thinking of those days makes me wet, hell and I wasn't even born yet.


Watching the Oilers play during the 80's was truly a wonderful experience for a true hockey fan.
Not were they not only a great TEAM on the ice,most of them were good friends off the ice as well.
It was truly a magical time in hockey,watching the Islander dynasty give way to the Oiler dynasty
Happy Birthday Wayne !





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