NHL: Creating the Ultimate Forward
From the ruler-straight blades used by stars like Gordie Howe and Frank Mahovalich, to the banana curves introduced by Bobby Hull and perpetuated by players such as Alexander Ovechkin, the equipment that NHL players use has changed dramatically over the years.
In the same way, the benchmark of what makes up a great player is always evolving. Every year new, exciting, and very different players enter the NHL starting a new debate regarding which skills the best forwards need to possess.
Alexander Ovechkin’s game is nothing like Sidney Crosby’s, yet they are both considered to be great players who are carving out careers that seem to be heading to the Hall of Fame.
What I am going to attempt to do is mix together all the forwards who I think were the best at each particular part of the game in order to create the ultimate forward.
The skills that are essential to being a forward, and from which I will be choosing the best from are: slap shot, wrist shot, skating ability, goal scoring ability, physical presence, offensive awareness, defensive awareness, passing, leadership, toughness, and durability.
It is very hard to compare the skills of contemporary NHL forwards to those in the past as I will be including players from all eras of hockey in my decisions.
Slap Shot—Bobby Hull
The mere thought of The Golden Jet powering over the blue line and firing a slap shot struck fear into the heart of every goalie he faced, and for good reason; Bobby Hull had the best slap shot the game has ever seen.
Far ahead of his time, Hull once had his revolutionary slap shot clocked at 118.3 mph, and he used it to perfection, scoring 50 goals or more five times in his storied career with the Blackhawks.
Hull was perhaps the most influential player of his era, adding a necessary weapon to the arsenal of all those who followed.
Wrist Shot—Joe Sakic
Known to be a quiet player, Silent Joe let his stick do most of the talking for him. Apparently his stick had a big mouth as Joe ended his career with 625 goals.
Not blessed with exceptional size or top end speed, Sakic had to rely on his seemingly laser-guided wrist shot to make a difference in each game he played.
Peter McNabb, former Avalanche radio announcer, called it the “perfect wrist shot,” and after witnessing his lightning fast release and pinpoint accuracy hundreds of frustrated goaltenders will agree.
Skating Ability—Jean Beliveau
Standing an imposing 6’3”, Beliveau had a powerful stride, outpacing any opponent he faced. As all great skaters do, Beliveau made skating look effortless and used his exceptional speed to carve out a legacy as one of the most pure skaters the game has ever seen.
Not only was he a great skater, Jean was also a great person. "Terrible Ted" Lindsay said Beliveau “epitomized class” and he really did. A class act on and off the ice, Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cups over his storied NHL career, cementing his position amongst the greatest players of all time.
Goal Scoring Ability—Mario Lemieux
Some players just know how to put the puck in the net, and Alexander Ovechkin and Mario Lemieux are two of those kinds of players.
Once scoring five goals in five different ways in one game (shorthanded, full strength, power play, penalty shot, and empty net on Dec. 31, 1988 against the New Jersey Devils), Lemieux put you on the edge of your seat every time he touched the puck.
Mario is arguably the most pure goal scorer of all time posting 85 goals in one season, and four in one period. Unfortunately a battle with cancer cut his career short, but didn’t stop him from scoring 690 goals in 915 games.
Goal Scoring Ability cont.—Alexander Ovechkin
Bursting onto the scene in the 2005-06 season, Alexander Ovechkin has already earned a reputation as one of the most spectacular goal scorers of all time. Plainly put, all Ovechkin does is score goals.
No matter what it takes, who he has to run over, or how he does it, the Great 8 will tickle the twine and he may embarrass your whole team before he does it.
Blessed with a deceptive and powerful shot, a multitude of one-on-one moves, otherworldly speed, and a dramatic flair previously only seen on Broadway, Ovechkin was built to score goals and he knows how to celebrate once he inevitably does.
Physical Presence—Cam Neely
Aptly nicknamed “Bam-Bam Cam,” Cam Neely was the prototypical NHL power forward. At 6’1” and weighing in at 220 pounds, Neely was an imposing figure on the ice, and he used his size to brutal perfection.
Intimidating, devastating, and dominant Cam Neely ran amuck on every ice surface he ever stepped on; leaving opponents battered, bruised and physically defeated.
He was just as comfortable dropping the gloves as he was firing a snap shot past a goalie's glove, and Harry Sinden, President of the Boston Bruins, claims "power forward" first became part of hockey terminology because of Cam Neely’s style of play.
Offensive Awareness—Wayne Gretzky
The Great One didn’t score his goals with a rocket of a shot or with spectacular moves.
He didn’t tally more assists than any other players have points by physically dominating, or out-skating everyone on the ice.
Gretzky just played the game on a cerebral level that no other player could come close to matching.
He knew where every player was on the ice at all times and seemed to always to be in the right place at the right time. Simply put, Gretzky had the greatest mind for hockey that perhaps we will ever see.
Defensive Awareness—Bob Gainey
In 1981, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov stated that Gainey was “the world's best all-around player," and it’s hard to argue with the man.
Gainey’s tenacious play, top end speed, and relentless checking helped the Montreal Canadians to five Stanley Cups and led to the creation of a new postseason award, the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defensive forward.
Gainey won four consecutive Selke trophies, which is a testament to the way in which he played the game.
Passing is a skill that all players possess, but one that few master. Gretzky turned passing into an art form saucering and sliding his way to 1,963 assists over his career.
His teammates success bear tribute to his exceptional skill passing the puck; both Mark Messier and Jari Kurri exceeded 600 goals in their career.
Known as the greatest captain of all time, Messier was a leader of men who knew exactly how to get his teammates to play to the height of their potential.
The only professional athlete to captain two teams to a championship, Messier won six Stanley Cups in his career.
Most memorably, with his team down 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals Messier publicly guaranteed a Game Six victory and backed it up by scoring a natural hat trick in the third period, and leading his team to the Stanley Cup.
Every hockey fan knows that a Gordie Howe hat trick doesn’t mean scoring three goals, but it entails getting a goal, an assist, and dropping the gloves to finish it off.
Due to his penchant for fighting, Gordie Howe was once told by his coach Jack Adams, "I know you can fight. Now can you show me you can play hockey." And show him he could play hockey he did, physically dominating his opponents on the way to finishing in the top five in scoring for 20 straight seasons.
Howe played a full 80-game season when he was 51-years-old and was never one to shy away from throwing an elbow to make his presence felt. Howe played the game with a type of toughness that has yet to be matched.
No player has played more consecutive games than the forgotten star out of Brantford, Ontario: Doug Jarvis.
Jarvis played 964 games in a row, winning the Stanley Cup four times, the Frank J. Selke trophy, and the Bill Masterton Award along the way.
Although he didn’t put up many points, Jarvis epitomizes the word durable and any player would be proud to last as long as he did in a league renowned for its often recklessly violent style of play.
Great forwards have come and gone, but hockey fans can be comforted by the many young forwards from across the globe who are starting to assert themselves in the NHL.
However, whatever they accomplish, it will be hard to match the careers of those who have come before them.
Although he was left off the list, Sidney Crosby can take solace in the fact that although he is not the best at one single aspect of an NHL forwards game, he is a master at all and will continue to carve out his own legacy as one of the greatest forwards to ever play the game.