Over the weekend I caught the NBC weekly game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers. I viewed this matchup in the company of a friend who is both a huge Edmonton Oilers fan and, more specifically, a Wayne Gretzky fan.
I’m not sure if all fans of No. 99 are like my buddy, but if they are, it appears that they are personally insulted every time Sidney Crosby is compared with the NHL’s overall points king, Gretzky.
I tried to inform my friend that it’s not a fair comparison due to the difference in the style of hockey that was played then compared to now. This usually gets him worked up as he believes there is barely any difference, and any suggestion that Gretzky could not duplicate his accomplishments in today’s game is an insult to his wife and children.
So, in the honor of “Superfan No. 99 over here,” I’d like to illustrate several reasons why comparing the two players is not only unfair, but completely unrealistic.
First, let’s compare the two eras. While Gretzky was putting up inconceivable numbers, he wasn’t competing against the world’s best on a nightly basis. Communism was still very much alive and present. This meant that the NHL was missing out on some of the world’s finest talents such as Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, or various other NHL-caliber players from the USSR and Czechoslovakia, who were still playing behind the veil of the Iron Curtain.
Watch a game on ESPN classic from the early 1980’s and observe the skill level of the fifth and sixth defenseman, along with third and fourth line plumbers. The disparity between the best players and the bottom feeders is striking.
Allowing players from the aforementioned countries into the league would have increased the talent level.
Secondly, the age of technology was still not upon us. It used to be that you were deemed clinically insane if you chose shot blocking as your ticket into the NHL. Brad Marsh was loved for the courage he displayed when getting in the way of blasts from the point—without a helmet no less.
Due to the advancement in equipment, every player on an NHL roster is expected to block shots. There is still fear of injury, but nothing like it was in the past. It’s not uncommon to see your top offensive player lead his team in points as well as shots blocked.
Furthermore, goalies from yesteryear donned pads that weighed twice as much as well as retained water. Chest protectors didn’t blot out the sun and jersey’s actually fit tightly.
Blackhawk great Tony Esposito recently commented on XM Home Ice that the players shin guards of today are stronger than his old goalie pads. He also remarked that he could literally fit the entirety of his old trapper into the webbing of a current glove.
What this translated into was far less shot blocking, along with smaller and slower goalies—two things that have been major factors in the average goals per game sinking from 7.84 (between 1980 – 1986) to 5.88 over Crosby’s young career.
Finally, along with Russian and Czechoslovakian players, defensive systems were still absent from the NHL. Every team utilized a three-man forecheck while backchecking was something for third line centers.
It was for these reasons that top forwards would absorb shifts that exceeded 90 seconds and, in some cases, in excess of two minutes.
Former Oilers coach, Glen Sather, commented that when Gretzky would get a “rosy glow” to his cheeks, he’d double and triple shift his superstar. This meant that on many nights, “The Great One” would exceed thirty minutes of ice-time.
In today’s NHL, the average top-line forward falls in-between 18-22 minutes. With a third less ice-time, 200 points would have been a far more difficult feat to attain.
In no way am I attempting to taint what Gretzky accomplished throughout his career. He is still, in my opinion, the greatest offensive weapon the game has ever seen. However, it’s for these reasons that Crosby should never be asked, or expected, to put up the absurd numbers that Gretzky did.
Crosby has enough pressure living up to lofty expectations during his own era, let alone someone else’s.
Let’s leave history behind us so that No. 87 can write his own.