Ranking the 50 Most Influential People in NHL History
Both men made no secret of their love for their respective cities, devoting the better part of their lives and careers to establishing, emboldening and elevating the tradition of Canada’s two NHL Original Six franchises.
The majority of the other key figures in the NHL’s 85-year history have had to make more rounds around the league to make their impact. That travel and relocation, however, is often crucial to one’s impact, as players and executives have served to spread a stable interest in the sport.
Franchise founders, barrier breakers and title tycoons constitute much of the league’s historic pantheon of influence.
Ditto to those players and promoters who invented or reinvented equipment and tactics, who spawned, sustained or revived interest in a given franchise or market or who changed perceptions of any aspect of the game.
The 50 figures that have demonstrated the most sway on the sport and hold at least partial responsibility for a still-existing element or legacy in the NHL are as follows.
50. Gerry Cheevers
There is a song that makes a not-so-subtle reference to Cheevers’ iconic goalie mask. It was one of the first personalized shields—a calling hard that has smoothly transitioned from the exception to the norm in the last four decades.
49. Norman Green
Green owned a share of the Calgary Flames for the team's first decade of operation after moving from Atlanta to Alberta, including a banner year in 1990.
That fact is often clouded by Green’s claim to infamy among Minnesotans, namely for taking their North Stars in the reverse direction down to Dallas.
But if you buy into the adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder, then Green can take some credit for amplifying the appetite for pro hockey in the Twin Cities.
48. Roger Neilson
Neilson’s nickname, “Captain Video,” stemmed from his pioneering use of game tape as a means of deriving strategies and tactics.
47. Ed Snider
Snider piloted Philadelphia’s efforts to land an NHL franchise and has since overseen the Flyers’ full 45-year run.
His short list of hockey-related accomplishments includes the ice-breaking Stanley Cup championships of 1974 and 1975, the move into a new arena in 1996 and the old Spectrum’s well-received usage by the AHL Phantoms until that building was condemned in 2009.
46. Gary Bettman
Like any politician whose track record bears more minuses than pluses, Bettman has still had his share of commendable moments as NHL commissioner. Six new franchises and the annual Winter Classic are among the league’s new arrivals during his ongoing tenure of 19-plus years.
45. Jacques Lemaire
As infamous as it may be for constricting offensive output, the neutral-zone trap is a proven winning tool.
The only task harder than slicing through the New Jersey Devils’ laser-beamed backcheckers in the 1995 playoffs would have been finding a disgruntled Devils fan after they won the Cup under Lemaire’s guidance.
With similarly defensive styles getting them into the 2011 and 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, respectively, it is likewise hard for Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers fans to complain.
44. Mike Emrick
Emrick is the sport’s single-most eloquent broadcaster in the history of American television coverage and maybe the best of all present-day announcers—if not the best of all time.
It comes as no surprise that, for the last three decades, no one but Emrick has been trusted in the role of editor of the NHL’s Pronunciation Guide. Nor is he out of place as a member of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee, having observed an infinite array of NHL legends over the course of his career.
43. Bob Cole
While the U.S. has Emrick, Canada has Cole, who called Hockey Night In Canada broadcasts on a regular basis for nearly four decades and still has not hung up the mic altogether.
The length of Cole's tenure is easily more than half of HNIC's all-time run, qualifying him as a historically integral part of a Canadian ritual.
42. Harry Neale
Neale picked up his first-hand insights on the game through 13 years of coaching in the WHA and NHL.
He then passed those insights along to a national audience, complementing Cole on HNIC as a color commentator for a full two decades—a position and tenure that underscores his status as one of the quintessential analysts.
41. Dick Irvin, Sr.
As unbelievable as it is, the Montreal Canadiens were once a hard sell and on thin financial ice. The following excerpt from Irvin’s Hockey Hall of Fame profile speaks to that time and his role in making that dark period a forgotten one.
“In 1940-41, Irvin was hired to revive a Montreal Canadiens franchise that was floundering on the ice and at the box office, and became one of the key reasons behind the club's return to prominence. In fact, it has often been said that his leadership and vision helped him to save the team from bankruptcy by turning its fortunes around in short order.”
Irvin would oversee two championships in 1944 and 1946.
40. Mike Modano
Concomitant with hockey’s hard-charging publicity chariot manned by Wayne Gretzky was the protracted peak of a U.S.-born NHL hero.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 NHL entry draft was a mainstay in the Minnesota/Dallas organization for 21 years. For 17 of those years, Modano was often the nucleus on the ice and at the gate, as the Stars made hockey relevant in the unlikely hotbed of Texas.
A generous sprinkling of minor league, junior, travel and high school teams in the state is owed to the Stars success, which, in turn, is owed heavily to Modano.
39. Don Cherry
Hey, isn’t that specifically what his position is for? Stoking a healthy, passionate debate about the game and thereby promoting it?
38. Patrick Roy
Roy is the only player to have won the Conn Smythe Trophy three times and the only one to have done it with multiple teams.
Roy all but evenly split his career between the Canadiens and Avalanche, winning two Stanley Cups apiece for each franchise. His 1995 trade from the former to the latter was instrumental in making the NHL relevant in Denver and brought on an unprecedented stretch of ill fortune to Montreal.
37. Lester Patrick
Two years later, in a similar role, he helped the New York Rangers become the first U.S.-based NHL franchise to win the game’s Holy Grail. His playing role there was minimal, but memorable, as he subbed for injured netminder Lorne Chabot in a championship series game.
Patrick would coach the Blueshirts to yet another title in 1933 and oversaw their 1940 Cup run as general manager.
36. Mark Messier
It is unfair to merely credit Messier as someone who captained two different Stanley Cup championship runs. He did so under two particularly pressure-laden sets of circumstances.
First, with the Edmonton Oilers, he filled the leadership void left by Gretzky shortly after the team won its fourth title in five years. Messier and his mates were vanquished by none other than Gretzky’s L.A. Kings in the subsequent 1989 playoffs, instilling the notion that the balance of power had shuffled southward with The Great One.
But the following season, under Messier’s exemplary leadership, the Oilers claimed one last Cup. En route to that title, Messier claimed the 1990 Hart Trophy with a career-best 129 regular-season points.
Messier himself would depart Edmonton, transferring to the New York Rangers in 1991. In his first year with his new club, he won another MVP laurel and then proceeded to pilot a historic run to the 1994 championship, ending the NHL’s longest title drought before or since.
35. Lou Lamoriello
Dynasties, by their generally accepted definition of a slew of consecutive and/or not-too-distant championships, are as good as dead in the NHL.
The closest anybody has come to that status over the last two decades is Detroit, with four Cups between 1997 and 2008, and New Jersey, with three titles between 1995 and 2003.
All of that speaks to the exceptional executive prowess Lamoriello has demonstrated for a quarter-century with the Devils. He has been the lone constant for a franchise that has had a stretch of 21 playoff appearances in 24 tries and five finals appearances in the last 17 seasons.
34. Al Arbour
When the New York Islanders arrived as an expansion team in 1972, making the metropolis a two-team hockey market for the first time in 30 years, winning would be essential for them to coexist with the Rangers.
With Arbour behind the bench, any anxiety in that department was repelled before it could logically settle in.
After a 12-60-6 slump during their inaugural season, the Islanders were put in Arbour’s hands and, if nothing else, improved by 26 points in the standings.
In the ensuing years, however, patience paid off as Arbour guided the Isles to a winning record and their first Stanley Cup playoff appearance in their third season of existence.
Arbour’s pupils did not bow out of the first round of the postseason until 1986. In the interim, they won four consecutive titles and nearly matched the Montreal Canadiens’ record of five straight.
33. Jim Devellano
The aforementioned Arbour’s Islanders were built, in part, by Devellano, who stuck around long enough for the first three years of the early '80s dynasty.
The same could be said about the Detroit Red Wings under Scotty Bowman, who eclipsed the Isles in rewarding Devellano with four Cup rings.
One of the reasons Detroit grew to be a franchise worth emulating in the '90s and 2000s was because of Devellano’s comprehensive global-scouting system.
Three key cogs from the start of the Red Wings’ rise—Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Nicklas Lidstrom—were among the discoveries of the Devellano front office.
32. Alan Eagleson
Due to a criminal record that surfaced in the late 1990s, Eagleson is nothing short of infamous today.
However, Eagleson previously served a 24-year tenure as the executive director of the NHLPA, helping that organization set its pegs firmly into the ice after failed attempts in prior decades.
In addition, he orchestrated the 1972 Summit Series, one of the few high-profile international events to involve professional players until NHLers began to compete in the Olympics.
31. Willie O’Ree
O’Ree’s selflessness has never been a secret in the five-plus decades since his brief NHL playing career.
Unsatisfied solely with the personal distinction of breaking the league’s color barrier, he has tirelessly worked to instill awareness and passion for the sport amongst all communities on the continent.
28-30. The Stastny Brothers
Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, along with his brothers Anton and Marian, were the first Eastern Europeans to defect from their homeland and make a substantive impact in the NHL.
Although the post-Cold War circumstances surely put today’s players more at ease in terms of crossing continents, there is no telling whether European imports would have the same presence in the NHL if not for the Stastnys’ trailblazing.
27. Tommy Williams
26. Alexander Mogilny
Mogilny is viewed as hockey’s Russian revolutionary—he broke the NHL ice for his Soviet countrymen by defecting in 1989.
25. Phil Esposito
Besides composing a Hall of Fame career and being the emotional leader for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, Esposito founded the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the first NHL franchises in the deep U.S. south.
The 1992 arrival of the Lightning preceded the NHL’s expansion into Anaheim, Miami and Nashville, as well as the relocation of various teams to Dallas, Phoenix and Raleigh. Tampa and three other teams on that list have won a Stanley Cup since then.
24. Ted Lindsay
Amidst his Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Red Wings, Lindsay led the first attempt to form an NHLPA in 1957.
His efforts proved ill-fated due to the collective iron fist of the league’s six front offices, but the remnants of his movement were reinvigorated a decade later to establish a permanent players’ association under the aforementioned Eagleson.
Lindsay himself was tangibly rewarded in that he is now the namesake for the trophy given to the players’ choice for NHL MVP.
23. Foster Hewitt
Hewitt’s distinctive sign-on of “Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland!” is still played at the start of every Hockey Night In Canada telecast.
One of Hewitt’s final memorable acts was calling the climax of the 1972 Summit Series. One only wishes he could have performed longer and utilized his voice and passion deeper into the modern era.
22. Jack Adams
21. Punch Imlach
An initial glance at Imlach’s transcript may give the impression that he committed one of the foremost blasphemies in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ book of law. However, without his time in Buffalo, the Maple Leafs-Sabres rivalry may never have had a chance to lift off.
Imlach sandwiched two coach/GM stints in Toronto with nearly a decade of honing the upstart Buffalo team.
The four Stanley Cups Imlach won as a coach in the 1960s doubtlessly factored into the Sabres’ enlisting him at their inception. They were rewarded when they reached the finals in only their fifth year of existence.
Imlach’s influence may have had its quintessential moment when he convinced Tim Horton, a celestial veteran of nearly two decades in Toronto, to bring his services to the Sabres.
Horton tragically died in a car crash during his second season with Buffalo, but his time there boosted the fledgling franchise, and Imlach was instrumental in that transaction.
20. Toe Blake
More critically, in the postseason, he set an immediate tone by winning a record five straight Cups in his first five years on the job, then added three more as part of four consecutive finals appearances.
19. Mario Lemieux
Once as a player and twice as an executive, Lemieux arrived at the eleventh hour to preserve the Pittsburgh Penguins as we know them. Twice as a player and once as an executive, he led them to a title.
In his rookie campaign, attendance swelled from a nightly average of 6,839 spectators to 10,018. By the end of his seventh season, the Pens were Stanley Cup champions, a title they retained for another year in 1992, with Lemieux garnering a second-straight Conn Smythe Trophy.
Ultimately, they stayed intact and stayed put, and Lemieux returned to playing in 2000-01. Shortly after he put away the duffel bag again, he kept the team home yet again after Kansas City appeared to be the backup plan without a new arena in the Steel City.
They survived that 2007 scare and proceeded to put in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals appearances, winning the title in 2009. Less than 16 months later, they opened the pristine Consol Energy Center.
18. Glen Sather
Sather’s tenure as coach of the Edmonton Oilers lasted from 1979 until his resignation in 2000. The latter half of his run paled in comparison to the former, which says more about the teams he sculpted and fostered over the 1980s.
Sather brought on the likes of Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and Jari Kurri, all of whom fueled the better part of a run that saw the Cup spend five of seven summers in Edmonton.
The last of those championships, garnered in 1990, is all the more impressive considering the personnel and psychological tweaks the Oilers required after Gretzky was traded.
17. Scotty Bowman
Everywhere Bowman went in three-plus decades as an NHL coach, he won.
The expansion St. Louis Blues reached the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three years of existence and the first three years of Bowman’s career.
The Montreal Canadiens won five titles, including four straight, in an eight-year partnership with Bowman. After that dynasty, he transferred to Buffalo and took the Sabres to the Cup semifinals in the first of five straight winning seasons.
Upon inheriting a Pittsburgh Penguins team after the illness and untimely death of predecessor Bob Johnson, he steered an emotionally rattled club to a repeat championship in 1992.
Bowman relocated once more, this time to Detroit, after a 56-win season in Pittsburgh in 1992-93. Over the next nine years, he won 20 playoff series and three Cups for the Red Wings, ultimately retiring after they vanquished the Carolina Hurricanes for the 2002 title.
16. Sam Pollock
His earlier years at that post were also the aforementioned Blake’s last as head coach, but he managed to find and hire three eventual Cup-winning successors in Claude Ruel, Al MacNeil and the aforementioned Bowman.
Pollock left office after the Habs won a third consecutive title in 1978, but Bowman and a host of holdover players he had brought on board defended their crown in 1979. In addition, there were three remainders from that team―Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey and Mario Tremblay―who partook in Montreal’s next title run in 1986.
15. Howie Morenz
As it happened, Morenz would briefly play for the Rangers as well as the Chicago Blackhawks. But for the bulk of his career, he set the precedent for the Canadiens’ revered tradition, much the same way Ruth did with the New York Yankees.
14. Art Ross
Ross was hired to coach the Boston Bruins, the league’s first U.S.-based franchise, and remained in their front office for a full three decades. In that time, the team won three Stanley Cups and gave rise to hockey at other levels in New England.
Furthermore, Ross is credited with designing the modern puck and net.
This comes from Stan Fischler in his book, Boston Bruins: Greatest Moments and Players:
“One of the more creative minds in hockey, Ross redesigned the rubber puck―which formerly had sharp edges that caused painful cuts―had the edges beveled and improved the game. Pre-Ross nets were simple devices with sloping flat rear sections that frequently inspired pucks to bounce out of the twine as fast as they went in. Ross’s improvement became the NHL-approved net with a double half-moon interior built to retain pucks shot into the webbing.”
It is fitting that the trophy given to the player who plays the biggest part in pucks going into the net is named in Ross’ honor.
13. Frank Calder
Calder served as the NHL’s president from the league’s 1917 inception until his untimely passing in 1943.
During that quarter-century, as is underscored in his Hockey Hall of Fame biography, Calder steered the fledgling league through the Great Depression and portions of two World Wars.
Few figures in hockey history can claim to have multiple high-profile trophies named in their honor. But Calder can, and deservedly so, as the Calder Trophy is awarded to the NHL’s top rookie while the playoffs champions of the American Hockey League hoist the Calder Cup.
It’s quite fitting in both cases. After all, Calder oversaw the NHL in its rookie season and oversaw its development into the sport’s most revered circuit.
12. Conn Smythe
The Toronto Maple Leafs, figuratively and quite literally, would not have been the Maple Leafs without Smythe.
He rebranded his hometown’s NHL franchise upon purchasing the Toronto St. Pats in 1927 and proceeded to oversee the best years of the franchise’s existence.
Look no further than the fact that the Leafs garnered 11 Cups in the four decades between 1927 and 1967—but have not so much as been to the finals since.
Smythe’s Toronto tenure often makes one forget his preceding stint in the New York Rangers front office, where he was credited with helping to build their eventual championship teams of 1928 and 1933.
Beyond his work with individual teams, Smythe helped to give the Hockey Hall of Fame a tangible location, which opened in 1961.
11. Ken Linseman
The merit of allowing 18-year-old prospects to enter the NHL draft and take a crack at a roster spot has been long debated, even in the decades since it became a second-nature notion.
Regardless, the rule change is owed to Linseman, who spoke up in 1978 when he wanted a shot at The Show with no further delay. Had the NHL ignored or shot down the push for change, the development of infinite rising stars could have been hampered in future years.
Could you imagine Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos or John Tavares having to settle for the role of a shark in a small pool for two additional years in juniors?
10. Eddie Livingstone
Livingstone, the owner of the old Toronto Blueshirts, was unwittingly instrumental in the formation of the NHL.
In the days of the league’s predecessor, the National Hockey Association, Livingstone estranged his five peers to the point where they elected to start from scratch. The result was the six-member NHA giving way to the four-member NHL, effective in 1917-18.
9. Glenn Hall
Even when the NHL was a compact, six-team circuit, the moniker “Mr. Goalie” could not have been doled out liberally. As it happened, it went to Hall, who is widely credited with patenting and pioneering the butterfly move.
8. Jacques Plante
The first netminder to wear a mask on a regular basis, beginning in the middle of a Nov. 1, 1959 game versus the Rangers, Plante can be credited for changing the occupations of stopping and shooting alike.
Besides the obvious notion of giving goaltenders more conviction and security, the use of masks allows skaters to unleash harder and higher shots without a second thought.
7. Stan Mikita
Mikita was one of those early examples of players with an increasingly powerful shot. The accidental bending of his stick inspired him to create the “banana blade,” which proved to deliver a range of trickier, more effective releases of the puck.
Besides that, Mikita was like Plante in the sense of trailblazing the use of essential equipment in wake of an injury.
According to his Hall of Fame biography, a concussion inspired Mikita to start wearing a helmet, which became a required part of the NHL uniform by the time his career was winding down.
6. Bobby Hull
A fellow Blackhawk legend and slap-shot pioneer like Mikita, Hull made his presence and subsequent absence from the NHL felt to an equally intense degree.
Being the most talented and well-known player to bolt for the newfangled World Hockey Association, Hull was the topmost reason for the NHL to take notice of its competitor.
5. Maurice Richard
Richard’s impact on his team’s vast fanbase during the 1940s and 1950s is all but self-explanatory, but perhaps best captured and preserved in the short film The Hockey Sweater.
4. Clarence Campbell
Campbell served the longest tenure of any NHL president/commissioner from 1946 to 1977.
In that time, he oversaw the league’s most sizeable expansion spurt when membership doubled from six to 12 teams at the start of the 1967-68 season. By the time he left office, there were six more franchises.
Campbell’s legacy is preserved in the form of the Western Conference playoff championship trophy.
Appropriately enough, the Campbell Bowl was originally doled out in 1967-68 to the regular-season champion of the Western Division, a division that would not have existed if not for expansion.
3. Bobby Orr
The only defenseman to have ever won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading point-scorer, Orr did so twice with 120 and 135-point campaigns in 1969-70 and 1974-75, respectively.
Orr’s career was not nearly as fulfilling as it should have been, ending in 1979 when he had barely turned 31 years old.
But if not for his flashy and innovative style, there may never have been a Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Phil Housley, Nicklas Lidstrom, Al McInnis, Larry Murphy or Denis Potvin as we know them.
From a franchise standpoint, Orr all but single-handedly resurrected the Boston Bruins at the gate and in the standings.
Annual attendance at the Boston Garden concomitantly increased in each of his first seven seasons, peaking at an above-capacity nightly average of 15,003 in 1972-73.
In other venues, the prospect of seeing a player like Orr visit helped the aforementioned Campbell’s revolutionary expansion class gain the traction it needed.
2. Gordie Howe
If Howe was not the first NHL player to fit the title of “power forward,” he was at least responsible for popularizing the title.
Few players, before or since, have delivered a comparable combination of physicality and scoring prowess, though an infinite number of aspirants have emulated Howe’s productive approach.
1. Wayne Gretzky
Campbell approved the spread of the NHL to previously unheard of hockey markets. Gretzky justified it and prompted further expansion into every corner of the United States when he brought his regal touch to the Los Angeles Kings.
If there were any prospective hockey enthusiasts in Canada who had yet to be turned on to the game before Gretzky’s nine-year stay in Edmonton, they were indubitably hooked on the game afterward.
His importance to his home country became self-explanatory when the Oilers traded him to the Kings. But his subsequent impact on the game on the other side of the border is equally plain—and was likely more crucial to the league than anything he attained in Edmonton.
The NHL had 21 teams at the time of Gretzky’s arrival in L.A. for the start of the 1988-89 season. One year after he retired, by the start of the 2000-01 campaign, there were 30 teams, with new arrivals in Anaheim, Atlanta, Carolina, Columbus, Colorado, Dallas, Florida, Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose and Tampa Bay.
During and since Gretzky’s career, hockey fans and pundits have had an unshakeable habit of dubbing otherworldly NHL prospects “The Next One.” That habit may never taper off.