Every professional sports league has the same debate. You hear it on talk shows, you hear it on Twitter and you hear it at your friend’s house: “Who’s better, Lebron James or Michael Jordan? Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? Babe Ruth or Willie Mays?” So, why is it that the NHL doesn’t have this debate? The answer is simple. The NHL had Wayne Gretzky.
No. 99’s impact as a hockey player was so far and away the best of all time that NHL fans can’t even pretend to argue against it. I’m a Rangers fan, and I’d love to tell you Brian Leetch or Henrik Lundqvist were the best hockey players ever, but what’s the point in wasting my energy? It’s Gretzky. I’ll admit, I don’t have the knowledge or conviction to compare the Great One’s success in the NHL to any golfer, boxer or tennis player, and I don’t know much about soccer, either. But I can tell you, though he doesn’t get the proper recognition, Gretzky was the best North-American male athlete that ever played a team sport.
Let’s start with the basics, Gretzky was a forward, and forwards are in charge of generating offense for their team. In the NHL, offensive production is measured in three main ways: goals, assists and points (goals+assists). Gretzky is the all-time leader in each of those categories, so we’ll use points as a baseline statistic. In his 16-year NHL career Gretzky won four Stanley Cups Championships (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, all with the Edmonton Oilers), nine Hart Trophies given to the league MVP (including eight in a row from 1980-1987), two Conn Smythe Trophies given to the MVP of the playoffs (1985, 1988) and 10 Art Ross Trophies given to the league’s leading point-scorer (1981-87, 1990, 1991, 1994). Basically, Gretzky’s odds of winning league MVP or being the scoring champion were better than a coin-flip.
Gretzky’s place as the best to ever do it is even more obvious when comparing him to other NHL greats. In fact, though he scored the most goals of anyone in the history of the league with 894, if he had never scored a single goal, he would have enough assists (1,963) to still be the all-time point leader in the NHL. His 2,857 points are 936 more than the second place Jaromir Jagr, 970 more than the third place Mark Messier, and 1,007 more than fourth place Gordie Howe. That’s a 32% difference between Gretzky’s career points and the next closest player.
When considering that each of those players played more than 1,700 games, when Gretzky didn’t even play 1,500, the comparisons get a little ridiculous. For example, Jagr played in 1,733 NHL games, which is 246 (three full seasons) more than Gretzky’s 1,487. Had Gretzky played the same number of games as Jagr at his career-rate of 1.92 points-per-game, Gretzky would have finished his career with approximately 3,330 career points, 41% more than Jagr.
Now, some of you might be thinking that perhaps Gretzky was merely a high-level accumulator (probably not, but maybe). Maybe he was just someone who simply played long enough at a high enough level that he was always going to end up with staggering career numbers. Well, in fact, some of the individual seasons Gretzky had were even more impressive than his career totals. In the 10 years that Gretzky led the league in scoring, he averaged 182 points, and throughout his entire career, he averaged 157 points-per-82-game season. For contrast, in 2019, the Art Ross Trophy went to Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who scored 128 points, which was the highest mark in over 25 years. Even wilder, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars won the trophy in 2014-15 with only 87 points. There just isn’t anyone putting up numbers like Gretzky anymore, and there really never was.
No player in NHL history has ever surpassed 200 points in a single season. That is, except for Gretzky, who did it four times (205, 208, 212 and 215). Only two players have ever surpassed 160 points in a single season: Mario Lemieux, who did it four times, and Wayne Gretzky, who did it nine times. Nine of the 11 highest-scoring seasons in NHL history belong to the Great One. Yes, Lemieux’s playing career was curtailed by cancer, and perhaps he’d be higher on the all-time scoring list if it hadn’t, but Gretzky was in a league of his own.
By now, anyone still reading this is probably quite numb to these bombastic hockey statistics. In the case of the NHL, the point is simply that Gretzky was the best to ever do it. But how does Gretzky’s individual success compare to the greats from the NBA, MLB and NFL? As it stands, there is no athlete in North-American team-sports history with a greater statistical advantage over the competition than Wayne Gretzky. As I mentioned before, Gretzky finished his career with 32% more career points than the second place Jaromir Jagr, so we’ll use that as a measuring point for his career “success” relative to the competition.
The current NBA all-time scoring leader is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 38,387, 1459 more than the next highest, Karl Malone. That’s a difference of only 3.8%, a far-cry from Gretzky’s 32%. Yes, LeBron James is on pace to exceed both Kareem and Malone, but given that LeBron is currently 35 years old, it probably won’t be by much. For argument’s sake, if LeBron were to miraculously exceed Kareem’s mark by 32%, he would need to score 50,670 points, over 16,000 more than he currently has. As he sits at 34,241 career points after 17 years in the NBA, somehow I doubt that even the legendary LeBron James can play eight more years at his current pace of 2000+ points-per-season basketball.
In the MLB, the great hitters like Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds were remarkably close in career home runs and runs-batted-in, so there really is no clear all-time great among that group. If you asked five different experts about the greatest hitter of all time, you’d likely get five different answers. That being said, there is a much bigger gap between the all-time great pitchers though. For example, the all-time strikeout leader for pitchers is Nolan Ryan, who had 5,714 in his career. The next closest is Randy Johnson, who struck out 4,875 batters in his time in the major leagues. Ryan’s 839 strikeout lead over Johnson is a roughly 15% difference. Incredible, no doubt, but not quite Gretzky-level. For Ryan to exceed Johnson’s strikeout total by 32% he would have had to have thrown 6,435, an additional 721. Though Ryan did once rack up 383 strikeouts in a single season, he retired at the age of 46 after 27 years in the MLB (and struck out only 46 hitters in his final season), so it’s highly unlikely he could have ever reached that total.
In the NFL, the difference between Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning in terms of key passing statistics is almost negligible. They all have between 72-80,000 passing yards and 530-570 passing touchdowns, with the rest of the field not far behind. The only NFL record that appears anywhere near as far above the competition as Gretzky’s is Jerry Rice’s all-time receiving yards. In his career, Jerry Rice compiled 22,895 receiving yards, 5551 yards and 24% more than the second-place Larry Fitzgerald. But, considering Fitzgerald is still an active and productive player, and the fact that receivers don’t have nearly the impact on a game that NFL QB’s, MLB pitchers, NBA stars or NHL top-line forwards do, Rice’s accomplishments really don’t compare.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering why, if Gretzky truly is the best team-sport athlete ever, why it is that he’s not mentioned alongside the Michael Jordan’s and the Tom Brady’s of the sporting world. The answer to that is simple: Hockey is not as popular. The NHL just does not produce household names the way the other three major team-sports do, nevermind the fact Gretzky played in Canada most of his career. Though he clearly loses the popularity contest, Gretzky dominated the NHL in a way no other athlete has ever done in North-American sports history. LeBron James will likely have his number retired in Cleveland, Miami and Los Angeles, but there’s a reason no hockey player will ever wear No. 99 again. There will never be another Gretzky.