Gretzky is the GOAT

I was 15 years old when Wayne Gretzky was sold/traded to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9th, 1988. It was also my grandmothers’ 72nd birthday. Grandma Kramps was a gem. I never forgot the day Gretzky was traded, but it was second to Grandmas birthday.

However, I do remember exactly where I was when I heard the trade went down. I was in Beaumont playing with my buddy Darren when we heard the news. There was no Internet, social media or cell phones. You couldn’t just pick up your phone to find out information. We were playing in a park, when some random father came up to his son and said, “Gretzky got traded.”

We raced back to Darren’s house (I’m pretty sure it was the only house with yellow stucco in Beaumont), and we sat down on the couch and watched in shock. Why would the Oilers trade the best player in the NHL? They’d just won their fourth Stanley Cup in May. They were the best team in the league and Gretzky was the leader.

It made no sense. It still doesn’t 30 years later.

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Here was the entire deal.

The Oilers traded Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski, John Miner and Marty McSorley for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, Craig Redmond, three Kings’ first round picks — 1989 (later traded to Devils, who selected Jason Miller), 1991 (Martin Rucinsky) and 1993 (Nick Stajduhar) — and $15 million in cash.

A year later the Oilers traded Carson, Kevin McClelland and a fifth round pick to the Detroit Red Wings for Petr Klima, Joe Murphy, Adam Graves and Jeff Sharples. Klima, Murphy and Graves played a big part in the Oilers winning the 1990 Stanley Cup.

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The Gretzky trade rocked the sporting world and word spread of his sale/trade like wild fire. My older brother was traveling in Switzerland at the time. He was on a train when he overheard some people discussing the trade. He didn’t believe them, but when he got off the train he found a paper, and in the Switzerland paper there was a story about the trade. That was on August 10th.

Only the Emmys didn’t think the trade was a big deal, I guess.

As time passes, I find some people have tried to downplay Gretzky’s greatness. They try to compare eras using statistics to compare previous generations to today’s game, and some younger hockey fans have been led to believe Gretzky wasn’t as good as his stats suggest. Don’t believe any of that BS. People can compare eras all they like, but just using data is very inaccurate. It doesn’t account for everything — equipment, training, nutrition, commercial flights and many other factors. The game isn’t the same, but for me, instead of trying to compare players from different eras, the best thing to do is compare players in their own era to each other.

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If a player dominated his peers the way Gretzky did, I don’t see how anyone can claim he wasn’t the greatest. Look at what he accomplished instead of looking at ways to demean his success.

On the 30th anniversary of his trade, here are some numbers to ponder.

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1. Gretzky scored 100+ EV points ten times in his career. When he entered the league in 1979/1980, only Guy Lafleur had achieved triple digits at EV. Lafleur had 104 EV points in 1977. In Gretzky’s rookie season he tallied 100 EV points. He proceeded to score 104, 147, 132, 135, 146, 143 and 124 EV points over the next seven seasons. In 1988, he played only 64 games and scored 91 EV points. In his first three seasons with the Kings he produced 100, 96 and 103 EV points.

2. Gretzky reached 100 EV points ten times. The only other players to do it; did it once each: Lafleur, Mario Lemieux (102 in 1989), Steve Yzerman (101 in 1989), Jari Kurri (101 in 1985) and Mike Bossy (100 in 1982).

3. In Gretzky’s first 12 NHL seasons he scored between 91-147 EV points every year. That is 12 of the top 23 EV point totals of all time. On top of the aforementioned five players to top-100 points, the others to reach 91 include Phil Esposito (99 in 1974 and 1971), Lemieux (96 in 1993), Lafleur (96 in 1978), Jaromir Jagr (95 in 1996), Ken Hodge (93 in 1971) and Marcel Dionne (91 in 1980).

4. A total of 10 players have scored 91 EV points in an NHL season, and Gretzky did it 12 times.

5. Gretzky’s best PP point total was 61 in 1994 with the Kings. That is tied for 10th best with Sidney Crosby (2007). He best PP total with the Oilers was 57 in 1982.

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6. He isn’t considered one of the greatest pure goal scorers, likely because he didn’t have a flashy one-timer or regularly overpowered goalies with his velocity, but he has the most goals in NHL history, 894, and some of the best single season totals as well. His 68 EV goals in 1982 are the most in NHL history. Brett Hull is second with 57. Gretzky scored 55 and 54 EV goals in 1984 and 1985 respectively, and the only other player to score 50 EV goals in the 1980s was Jari Kurri, who potted 54 in 1985.

7. In the history of the NHL, only ten times has a player scored 50 EV goals: the aforementioned top-five, along with Steve Shutt (52 in 1977), Teemu Selanne (52 in 1993), Reggie Leach (51 in 1976), Esposito (51 in 1974, and 50 in 1971). (On a side note, if you don’t have Esposito in the conversation of greatest goal scorers of all-time, that is a mistake. He and Gretzky combined for five of the ten EV 50-goal seasons).

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8. In the 1980s (ten years from 1980-1989), Gretzky scored 637-1200-1837. The other top-five scorers over a ten-year span during that time were Peter Stastny (385-674-1,059), Jari Kurri (474-569-1,043), Denis Savard (351-662-1,013) and Marcel Dionne (404-576-980). (Statsny, Kurri and Savard all debuted in 1981, so I added their 1990 total to make it equal ten years to Gretzky). Gretzky had more assists than any of the second to fifth best scorers had points. When you hear the statement, “It was easier to score in the 1980s,” as an argument against Gretzky’s totals, just bring up these stats. If it was so easy, how come Gretzky had 778 points more than the second highest scorer? You can take Mario Lemieux’s best ten seasons and they add up to 1,412 points. Still 425 less than Gretzky’s first ten years in the league.

9. Gretzky scored 2,857 points in his career. Jagr is second with 1,921, Mark Messier is third with 1,887, Gordie Howe is fourth with 1,850. Gretzky had more assists, 1,963, than any of them had total points.

10. In the history of the NHL, 29 players have averaged one point-per-game in the playoffs (minimum 50 NHL playoff games). Only two players have averaged more than 1.25 PPG. Gretzky averaged 1.83 PPG in the playoffs, scoring 382 points in 208 playoff games. Lemieux averaged 1.6 with 172 points in 107 games. Mark Messier is third at 1.25 PPG with 295 points in 236 games. Gretzky’s ability to dominate at the most crucial time was remarkable.

You can try to manipulate the numbers any way you like, but no one dominated his peers the way Gretzky did, then or now. I hope we see someone do it in the future, but until then, don’t be fooled by anyone suggesting Gretzky wasn’t as dominant because of the era he played in. I’d argue that as we look deeper into his numbers, we are realizing he dominated the opposition more than we even knew at the time. Those who watched him in his prime likely took his greatness for granted.

Thirty years later, it is still hard to fathom Gretzky was traded. I still remember sitting in shock on Darren’s couch. We were teenagers and didn’t comprehend why the trade happened. It was the first time I realized professional sports was a business, and the business of the NHL changed mightily that day.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

    • Redbird62

      I can find several fan polls and writer polls etc. that name Gretzky or Howe on top, so no it is not consensus. And given the complexity of the sport, what makes a player great is subjective and so too is who is the GOAT . I am similar to Jason in that I would pick who dominates their peers the most. Between Howe and Gretzky, Gretzky’s gap over the other stars during his prime, was greater than Howe’s was in any period over players like Richard, Beliveau, Hull etc. Howe’s peak however, was much longer than Wayne’s as he won his last Hart at 34 and was still a contender for the Hart at age 41, whereas Gretzky last won at 28 and stopped getting votes at 31. Choosing between Gretzky and Orr is much more difficult for me, since they played two different positions, plus Orr’s career got cut down in his prime. Clearly Orr towered over any other defenseman ever, but players like Clarke, Esposito and even Jean Ratelle were often beating Orr out for the Pearson and the Hart at the time (which I will concede was incredibly stupid of the voters in many of those cases). I am old enough to have seen all of Orr’s and Gretzky’s careers, but only a small portion of Howe’s. For me, I am willing to say GOAT 1A-Gretzky ; GOAT1B- Orr.

      • daryl

        Gretzky was the Great One but I was fortunate to have seen Orr play and he dominated his peers just as Gretzky did. What a loss for hockey when his knees gave out he could have played another 10 years but for that.

    • Oilerz4life

      There are other hockey greats, obviously, Orr, Howe, etc. etc. That’s a good debate that will never end.

      But, nobody comes anywhere close to having an impact on hockey the way Gretzky did. Without the Great One hockey would not have grown down through the States and all of that.

      Also, we can thank Walter Gretzky for teaching Wayne to think the game so well from a young age. He taught Wayne how to anticipate the play, which is what separated Gretzky from everybody else.

      Wayne Gretzky completely transformed the way the game was played and it is because of him the market expanded the way it did.

  • Serious Gord

    As I have posited elsewhere on this site, Gretz was the GOAT to have an almost completely injury-free career.

    All of his competitors- including Howe suffered serious injuries that reduced their effectiveness for long periods.

    The stats/performance gaps for several other players were as good or better than WG but for much shorter intervals.

    • McRaj

      No one in the history of the game had bigger performance gaps between themselves and #2 in the league.
      Howes biggest gap was 24 points
      Orr 21 points
      Mario 31 points
      Wayne had years with gaps of 65, 72, 79, 73, 74, 75.

      Wayne’s domination is unmatched. Not even for a single season did anyone have better stats or performance gaps than Wayne. He holds 40 single season records. When discussing the greatest of all time. The list begins with Wayne at #1 and then the argument can begin on who is #2. There is no clearer argument in any other sport about who the GOAT of the sport is than Wayne being the GOAT of hockey.

      • Serious Gord

        1. Numbers – obviously don’t tell the whole story. Otherwise guys like serge Savard don’t amount to a hill of beans.

        2. That noted, look closer at the numbers on a percentage basis not just the numerical gap.

        For example WG total was 1.41Times higher than bossy. Howe was 1.33. And Howe fought and hit and played a far more complete game.

        3. Take the strength of the team into account (how many points would mcdavid be getting right now if he was playing with the team WG had)

        4. Orr had that margin AS A DEFENSEMAN. He is the only d man to EVER lead in points.

      • Redbird62

        As I said above it is hard to compare Orr and Gretzky strictly on offense because of the position. But since hockey is a 200 foot game, and it goals for and against that matter, Bobby Orr’s plus minus per game played towers over any other player who played the game. He controlled the entire ice surface in any game state. Orr was the best defensive player in the game for most of his career, easily the best offensive defenseman ever, and the one of the three best offensive players during his era. Gretzky’s the best offensive player ever by enough margin that I say it is too close to call in terms of GOAT.

        • Ignoring for a moment the problems with +/-, Orr and Gretzky had almost identical +/- in their first 12 seasons in the league and I believe Gretzky is the only other player to have a +100 season.

          Gretzky was no defensive slouch. The other team almost never scored when Gretzky was on the ice in his prime.

    • Jason Gregor

      Where did Howe have a long injury? He missed 30 games once. Similar to Gretzky missing 35 in 1993. Howe played 25 years in the NHL, and for 20 straight years he was top-five. He left game when he was 43 for a few years, then went to WHA. Did play again in NHL in 1979, but scored 41 points. He missed 30 games once in his first 25 years. I don’t see any serious injury that reduced his effectiveness to that point.

        • Serious Gord

          And lets not forget the series of serious fractures that the rocket suffered early in his career keeping him out of the war (deformed ankle).

          So many what ifs…

          • Jason Gregor

            The war began in 1939. Howe was 13 years old. It ended in 1945. He played his first NHL game in 1946/1947. He played in Omaha the year before. Yes, he had the head injury, suffered in the playoffs, but he didn’t miss one regular season game because of it.

        • OriginalPouzar

          If you want to talk injuries effecting play, what about Gretzky’s back injury suffered when Suter cross-checked him in 1991 – his production dropped by 42 points (163 to 121) from the year before and after the injury and never recovered to previous levels.

      • Serious Gord

        So a skull fracture resulting in a tic absolutely had no impact on how Howe played. All these players – including Crosby- who suffered concussions had no diminishment of how they played compared to before? You are certain of this Gregor?

    • Serious Gord, you clearly know your history and have been watching hockey for a long while, but I’m amazed that you’re either forgetting or ignoring Gretzky’s bad back. That hit from Suter in the Canada Cup significantly slowed him down from that point forward. He still managed to play through it, but I think it made him less effective.

      • Serious Gord

        That injury happened in his 11th NHL season – orr for example only played 12 Total.

        Gretzky played 1487 games in 20 years – about 93% of the number possible. He missed 16 games in EDM in nine seasons – 98% attendance. Not one of his rivals comes close to that level of health.

        • Jason Gregor

          Howe played 1767 of a possible 1824 games over 26 NHL seasons. He played in 96.88% of his games. His head injury, while scary didn’t impact him as a player. He had 68 points in 70 games in 1949/1950, then was injured in the playoffs. The next season he played all 70 games and produced 86 points. Despite a longer career he was actually healthier, and played more of his teams games than Gretzky. I agree for both, that part of what made them great was their ability to stay healthy.

          Also, an injury didn’t end Howe’s career. He choose to retire in Sept of 1971 when Norris offered him an executive job. Both were extremely healthy, but in fact Howe missed fewer games, despite playing more games than Gretzky. Gretzky missed 97 in his career and Howe missed 57.

          • Serious Gord

            How do you know it didn’t impact his play? A reputable journo in Pittsburgh studied the length of crosby’s Passes before and after concussions and found they were significantly shorter. Perhaps it reduced his ability to process what he sees.

            WG is the only player to not have suffered a significant injury in the first ten years of his career.

            You have no way of knowing what the injury did to Howes ability to play. Unless you are saying players with concussions should play…

        • Jason Gregor

          I just pointed out Howe missed fewer games. You said no one comes close. Howe did play a higher % of his games. He also finished top-five in scoring 20 consecutive seasons. If it impacted him, he didn’t show it. So I will go off the results and not speculate on how an injury might have impacted his play. This really has nothing to do with Crosby’s injury.

  • BobbyCanuck

    Yes, but could he drive a line? I would say no, because he never won anything after he left Edmonton, perhaps Kurri/Semenko/McSorley were the real reason he got so many points?

    Sorry, thanks to the last article, I just had to use an expired meaningless cleche