This past week, two different friends of mine casually put Sidney Crosby into the same category as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux (among others) when it comes to all-time hockey greats. One of the friends was a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, so I was able to dismiss that on the basis of personal bias. But the other is a lifelong hockey fan who has played the game and whom I usually defer on these kinds of questions. But not this time. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are on a different plateau than everyone else in NHL history and here’s why:
Let’s start with Gretzky. He won the Hart Trophy, given to the league’s MVP, his first eight years in the league, and nine of the first ten. I would also point out that he’s the NHL’s all-time points leader, but even that doesn’t do it justice. His assists alone would have made him the all-time points leader—he didn’t need to score a single goal to do it. But of course he did score a few goals—Gretzky is, in fact, the all-time goal scoring leader as well.
Now let’s go to Lemieux. Here we have to broaden our focus to include off-ice accomplishments. Between the lines, Mario was as good as anyone outside of The Great One. He was the one to break Gretzky’s MVP streak in 1988 and went on to put two more Harts in his trophy case. Lemieux won a pair of Stanley Cups in 1991-92 and for a franchise that had never been a serious contender before his arrival. Then, with the Penguins on the verge of insolvency, he bought the team and again brought them from the ash heap to the top. Pittsburgh has won three Cups during Lemieux’s ownership run.
I hope a simple review of Gretzky and Lemieux’s resumes makes it clear why I am opposed to putting anyone in their class. When it comes to Crosby in particular, I hope the two years he basically missed with a concussion, makes it clear why I think putting him this elite category is a different level of insanity.
When it comes to Wayne Gretzky, the only real question is whether he was the most transcendent athlete to ever play professional team sports, with Michael Jordan being the only serious competition. With Mario Lemieux, the only question is whether he is the most successful combination of athlete-executive in any team sport, with Jerry West and John Elway being the only credible alternatives. Let’s not make any other hockey player look bad by inserting them into a discussion with The Great One or Super Mario.