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The 25 Classiest Players in NHL History

Rob KirkCorrespondent IIJanuary 26, 2013

The 25 Classiest Players in NHL History

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    I have always been of the mindset that you can judge the character or class of an athlete best in defeat rather than in victory. The ability to lift your head in the face of failure will tell you more about the fiber of an athlete than the glory and exaltation of triumph.

    Hockey has one of the greatest traditions in all of sports. To some it is the ultimate salt in the wound, but to most it is the consummate display of sportsmanship.

    The handshake line at the conclusion of an often brutal playoff series requires humility from both victor and loser. The graciousness on either side of that line may not be as sincere as we'd like it to be, but it probably is more often than not. It reminds us that hockey is a team sport. We win as a team, and we lose as a team.

    Class is difficult to define in an athlete, but it tends to reflect how a player carries himself on and off the ice. Conducting oneself with a certain grace and distinction sounds a bit out of place given the often barbaric nature of the sport. That is the beauty of hockey.

    The most humble and grounded athletes in the world are found in the NHL. Even with the 24-hour-a-day news cycle and the "look at me" culture of SportsCenter highlight reels, hockey players tend to avoid the larger-than-life persona.

    The NHL has a history of classy players. Like any sport, there are an equally large number of not-so-classy players, but given hockey's place in the lexicon of professional sports, the ratio is much smaller. I've put together a list of the classiest players in the history of the game. The list could be exponentially longer, but this is my top 25.

    Feel free to add your own to the discussion, and as always, stay classy and enjoy now!

Mats Sundin

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    A fan favorite during his time in Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver, the only thing missing on Mats Sundin's resume is a Stanley Cup.

    As the first European-born captain in Toronto history, Sundin made a huge impact with Toronto. Though he couldn't quite get the Leafs to the promised land, he was embraced by the fans for his determined and gutsy style of play.

Guy Lafleur

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    Guy Lafleur's famous last words during his retirement speech accurately described his style of play:

    "Play every game as if it is your last one."

    "The Flower" or "Le Demon Blond" was one of the most electrifying players in NHL history and played with a style and panache that had writers describing Lafleur as "an artist on skates."

    A look at Lafleur's staggering statistics almost makes you think that he was too busy scoring to get called for any penalties: 1,127 games played, 1,353 points and only 399 penalty minutes.

Mats Naslund

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    Due to his smaller stature, Mats Naslund was often referred to as "Le Petit Viking" because of his Swedish heritage. At only 5'7" and 160 pounds, Naslund arrived in Montreal as a 23-year-old rookie. He hit 110 points in 1986 and helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup. He was the first player since Guy Lafleur to top 100 points, and no Montreal player has reached the 100-point mark since.

    Naslund only played 617 games in Montreal, tallying 634 points. More impressive was Naslund's 111 penalty minutes during that time, good for a Lady Byng Trophy in 1988.

Luc Robitaille

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    "Lucky" Luc Robitaille may have done more with less in his Hall of Fame career. An awkward skater, Robitaille was actually drafted after former Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine in the 1984 entry draft. He retired as the highest-scoring left wing in NHL history. From humble beginnings, Robitaille always carried himself with class and professionalism.

    Robitaille does a ton of charity work and has a great back story. Here's a link from the NHL Network that goes much deeper into his story.

Pat LaFontaine

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    With a career that had the potential to be so much more, Pat LaFontaine epitomized class on and off of the ice. With 1,013 points in only 865 games, LaFontaine has the highest point-per-game average of any American-born player. Concussions cut short what could have been a much more impressive career.

    His work founding and directing the Companions in Courage Foundation has been remarkable, and LaFontaine has received several awards for his time and commitment to helping others.

Teemu Selanne

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    All the "Finnish Flash" does is score goals and eat pudding, and he's fresh out of pudding. I can't be sure about Teemu Selanne's taste in low-budget desserts, but I know that at age 42, Selanne is still deadly with the puck. Always in the conversation as one of the best teammates in the locker room, Selanne has been nominated for the Lady Byng Trophy once.

    Selanne had one of the coolest Babe Ruth moments in hockey about six years ago. After learning that a friend in Finland had been diagnosed with cancer, Selanne promised to keep a puck if he got a hat trick. Though it had been about six years since he'd turned the trick, Selanne delivered the next night against Dallas.

Joe Sakic

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    For all the animosity that existed between the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche, you won't find a Red Wings fan with a negative word for the legendary Avalanche captain. Joe Sakic was a cool, quiet leader who led with superior play on the ice.

    In case you need an example of what a great person Sakic is, here's a video for you.

Pavel Datsyuk

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    It's hard to call Pavel Datsyuk classy with all of the filthy dangling he does on the ice. That said, there are few players in the league today that play a cleaner game at both ends of the ice than the Red Wings center.

Patrik Elias

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    The New Jersey Devils' all-time leader in points, Patrik Elias has played all 15 NHL seasons as a Devil. His work off the ice with UNICEF is noteworthy, and he is well respected on the ice by opponents.

    At the conclusion of the season, Elias found the Stanley Cup winning puck and returned it to the Los Angeles Kings. In appreciation, the Kings donated $5,000 to UNICEF for Elias.

    Are you listening, Chris Pronger?

Jarome Iginla

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    One of the truly good guys in the league, Jarome Iginla plays hard and aggressive, but always fair. Though it would be nice to see him get a chance to win a Stanley Cup in Calgary, the pending free agent could become a hired gun at the trade deadline.

Igor Larionov

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    With a nickname like "The Professor" one would assume that Igor Larionov was a cerebral player. Larionov was one of the Russian players that were instrumental in breaking down the barriers for Eastern-Bloc players to play in the NHL.

    Making his NHL debut at age 29, the Russian playmaker shuffled around the league before finding a home and three Stanley Cups in Detroit.

Paul Kariya

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    Blessed with incredible hockey instincts, great hands and blazing speed, Paul Kariya had his career shortened by concussions. A two-time recipient of the Lady Byng Trophy, Kariya was an electric playmaker and with a scoring touch.

Frank Boucher

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    Frank Boucher was a center for the New York Rangers for 13 years, finishing his playing career in 1944. If there was a player designed for the Lady Byng Award, it was Boucher.

    In fact, Boucher won the award with such frequency that Lady Byng herself gave him the original trophy in 1935, donating a second trophy to be awarded for the 1935-36 season.

Red Kelly

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    Red Kelly was one of the most unique players in NHL history, winning eight Stanley Cups as a player. Early in his career, Kelly was an All-Star defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings, winning the first four cups in Motown. After begrudgingly accepting a trade to Toronto, Kelly also changed positions at the request of coach Punch Imlach, to neutralize Montreal's Jean Beliveau.

    A four-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy, Kelly never swore and was rarely called to utilize the boxing skills he acquired at Toronto's St. Michael's College.

Jean Ratelle

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    Jean Ratelle drew comparisons to his namesake in Montreal Jean Beliveau because of his style of play and skill set. Through the course of his career Ratelle played in 1,281 games and tallied 1,267 points. Most notably, in 21 seasons Ratelle earned only 276 penalty minutes.

Ron Francis

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    If you tried to name the top five scorers in NHL history, Ron Francis may not have even crossed your mind. One of the most humble and understated players in the NHL, Francis' longevity is almost as impressive as his production level.

    Wildly popular in the Hartford community for his work on and off the ice, Ron Francis would play the better part of 10 seasons with the Whalers. Francis would play in three Stanley Cup Finals, winning two with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The third final would be with Hartford franchise's new location in Carolina.

    Though Francis and the Hurricanes would fall short in 2002, the Carolina community embraced Francis very much the same way the original Hartford franchise did. 

Wayne Gretzky

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    In addition to being the current owner of almost every meaningful scoring record, Wayne Gretzky has been a key figure in the growth of the NHL. In spite of the continual work stoppages, Gretzky has played an enormous role in the development and culture of the game that we know.

Steve Yzerman

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    Steve Yzerman morphed from one of the most gifted snipers in the league into one of the premier two-way centers in NHL history. Stevie "Wonder" helped break the Detroit Stanley Cup drought in 1997 before adding two more titles in 1998 and 2002.

    His quiet determination and leadership by example helped restore glory to the once-proud Detroit franchise.

Mike Bossy

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    Mike Bossy will go down as one of the top pure goal scorers in the history of the NHL. What isn't as well known about the New York Islanders' Hall of Fame forward was his stance on violence in hockey.

    His career was shortened by chronic back injuries likely suffered from the cheap shots he received over his career. Nine consecutive 50-plus goal seasons to start his career is a record that will probably never be broken.

Marcel Dionne

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    One of the most underrated and underappreciated players in NHL history, Marcel Dionne had the misfortune of playing hockey in Los Angeles long before anyone in California knew they played hockey there.

    Winning a couple of Lady Byng Trophies and piling up stats hardly do justice to the quality of player that Marcel Dionne was in the1970s and 1980s. Exactly 600 penalty minutes in 1,348 games reflect the style and sportsmanship that Dionne displayed throughout his career.

Bobby Orr

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    He is regarded by many as the most talented player to ever play the game. Bobby Orr's body let him down long before his career should have ended. He revolutionized the game with his attacking, end-to-end style and conducted himself as a gentleman even with the target on his back every night.

    Orr ended up in Chicago as a free agent at the end of his career, a result of being misled by his agent, Alan Eagleson. He never cashed a paycheck during his time in Chicago, his code of ethics wouldn't allow him to accept payment if he wasn't playing.

Syl Apps

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    Imagine an athlete from today returning a portion of their salary because they felt as though they didn't deserve it. Syl Apps of the Toronto Maple Leafs did just that in 1943.

    Because he had been out with injury, Apps wrote a check to Leafs president Conn Smythe for $1,000 reasoning that he hadn't been earning his salary. The surprised Toronto executive refused to accept the payment but gained an enormous measure of respect for his team captain.

Nicklas Lidstrom

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    As he awaits his certain induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Nicklas Lidstrom begins the next chapter of his life as "the perfect retired human." Seven Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cups headline his resume, but it is the respect and admiration from teammates and opponents that make Lidstrom legendary.

Brian Leetch

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    Brian Leetch was selected as the greatest New York Ranger of all time in the book 100 Ranger Greats. He was the first American-born player to win the Conn Smythe trophy (1994) and the last defenseman in the NHL to score 100 points.

    Leetch did it all with a quiet, unassuming confidence that endeared him to the Broadway faithful even when his Ranger playing days were over. The two-time Norris Trophy winner holds the NHL record for goals by a rookie defenseman.

Jean Beliveau

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     "Any parent could use Jean Beliveau as a pattern or role model. He provides hockey with a magnificent image. I couldn't speak more highly of anyone who has ever been associated with our game than I do of Jean."

    -Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL 1946-1977

    Though his name appears on the Stanley Cup more than any other person, Jean Beliveau is widely acknowledged as being more accomplished as a human being. So coveted was Beliveau as a junior player, Montreal general manager Frank Selke had the Canadiens purchase the entire league to procure the rights to the player.

    "Le Gros Bill" as he was affectionately called, would play 18 full seasons in Montreal, the final 10 as its captain. He was the first winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff's most valuable player and retired as the all-time playoff scoring leader.

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