Why Wayne Gretzky is the Greatest Athlete Ever

Ken Klavon@@Ken_KlavonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2014

INGLEWOOD, CA - MARCH 23: Center Wayne Gretzky #99 of the Los Angeles Kings is surrounded by photographers after breaking the all-time NHL goal scoring record in the game against the Vancouver Canucks. Gretzky''s 802nd career goal beat the previous record set by Gordie Howe.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Awestruck pundits used to say he played with eyes in the back of his head. Wayne Gretzky simply shrugged off the hyperbole and said he followed instinct by anticipating where the puck was going and foreshadowing where the play might take him. 

In other words, athleticism and intelligence were the secrets that carried “The Great One” to unparalleled heights.

From a prepubescent age, as early as age 9, Gretzky was nicknamed the next hockey messiah as he made his ascent toward a professional career in the National Hockey League. It was one in which he targeted idol Gordie Howe’s longtime records.

After looking back on a 20-year career, no one can say Gretzky didn’t meet such expectations in a storybook career that not only saw him obliterate records, but skate away as the greatest athlete ever.

Why is Gretzky the crème de la crème of any athlete who has graced the cosmos? For a couple of reasons. Analyzing the criteria for what makes Gretzky the greatest athlete, one needs to look no further than the two most significant categories used as the key measurements:

1. Versatility and athleticism: Gretzky was versatile in a demanding and rugged team sport. Hockey focuses on a myriad of athletic attributesmany of the same varied skills utilized, for the most part, by basketball, football and soccer players, widely considered among the best athletes.

A team sport is where supreme athletes, such as a Michael Jordan and Gretzky, can draw on uncanny traits to reach maximum performance and production. Sort of like pushing a high-end engine to full throttle with optimum results. Moreover, Gretzky came as close to performing impeccably in an athletic context. He simply contributed at a supreme level, executing instinctually and athletically in a split second on one centimeter blades.

2. Performance and production: Gretzky parlayed his incomparable athleticism into unmatched production, coupled by awards and championships. No athlete dominated his or her sport in such an extended manner the way Gretzky did. Nor with such aplomb. Gretzky made it look easy. His points accrued are the fairest and most logical barometer in which to gauge his unrivaled athleticism.

Take any sport and study the criterion for effectiveness. Points, yards, hits all equate to production, which of course, is predicated by statistics. They are the hallmarks by which we judge any athlete. MVPs and championships also come into the equation as ancillary benchmarks.

Most dominant athlete and greatest athlete, in this case, are mutually exclusive. Yet it only applies to Gretzky.

Is it possible someone like Jordan, who didn’t lead every statistical category in the NBA, be considered the greatest of his sport? Certainly. But a compelling argument can be made that Jordan had comparable players in Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. In addition, that’s also based on the presumption that basketball churns out the best athletes.  In this case, no.

It is a popular notion that anyone can pick up a ball anywhere and play, thereby enforcing a misguided perception that basketball’s mass appeal attracts the best athletes. It’s also a misguided perception that hockey’s inferiority complex as a regionalized sport in North America limits participation, hindering the talent pool.

In fact, hockey has long time been a global sport, and the NHL was the first major sports league, during Gretzky’s era, to begin welcoming the best athletes worldwide to join, making it, for all intents and purposes, a super alliance. But on to the case for Gretzky.

Is it pure balderdash to presume many of Gretzky’s offensive numbers will remain untouched? The short answer is no. Gretzky’s all-time record 2,857 points, even in today’s NHL that has been doing everything in its powersans eliminating the goaltenderto open up the game, is safe.

Take away Gretzky’s 894 goals, and his 1,963 assists, alone, would still stand up as the most points in NHL historyor 76 ahead of Mark Messier, who tallied 1,887 points. (To add context, only 11 other players have racked up more than 1,000 assists in the NHL’s 96-year history).

No. 2 all-time NHL points leader Mark Messier and Gretzky were sidekicks with the Oilers and later with the Rangers.
No. 2 all-time NHL points leader Mark Messier and Gretzky were sidekicks with the Oilers and later with the Rangers.Steve Babineau/Getty Images

To look at his reign another way, Gretzky notched 44 percent more points than Messier, which of course invites the following fun exercise to help put it into perspective:

It would be like another ballplayer whacking 335 more home runs than all-time leader Barry Bonds’ 762.

Or another basketball player scoring an additional 16,868 points more than NBA all-time leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,337.

Could you see another quarterback passing for more than 31,000 yards than Brett Favre’s 71,838?

Over his 1,487 regular season games, Gretzky averaged 1.92 points per game. By comparison Sidney Crosby, largely considered the game’s best player today, has averaged 1.41 points per game through the 2012-13 season, a staggering half-point difference.

For a time, Lemieux, again, might have been placed in the same stratosphere in averaging 1.88 points per game, just a small blip behind Gretzky. But playing in roughly 500 fewer games nullifies the comparison.

For much of Gretzky’s career, he was a fire hose at full throttle over an arduous 80-gamebefore 82 contests were implemented in 1995-96. But he also produced through grueling playoffs, performing every other day, which taxed body and mind unlike any other sport.

Contrarians will argue that Gretzky played in a more explosive era, which included expansion. The NHL game may have been more open, yes, but no one came close to his sustained production over many years. No other player tabulated a 200-point season, let alone four times.

The point is, if the game was so wide open and on a level playing field for all, why weren’t other players registering similar numbers?

While with the Kings, Gretzky broke Gordie Howe's goals-scored record and Howe's all-time points mark.
While with the Kings, Gretzky broke Gordie Howe's goals-scored record and Howe's all-time points mark.Mike Powell/Getty Images

Thought of as a shifty set-up player, Gretzky was a whirling dervish, blending effortlessness and craftiness as the type of athlete the sport had never seen. He was grace under pressure, sneaky fast and dazzling on skates. He saw the entire ice the way a modern-day defenseman does. 

If Bobby Orr and Howe revolutionized the game, Gretzky took what became before him and molded the metaphorical clay into the perfect threat, perfect player and perfect athlete.

But Gretzky was much more than a visionary on the ice. He was wrongly categorized as a playmaker and not a goal-scorer’s goal scorer, in the ilk of a Mike Bossy or Bobby Hull. Yet Gretzky produced nine 50-goal seasons, a record he shares with Bossy. He finished with 93 more goals than Howe, who is second on the list.

Consider “The Great One’s” greatness:  He eclipsed an aforementioned 200 points in a season four times; had 14 consecutive seasons of 100-plus points, averaging 159.29 per season in that span; amassed more than 100 points in 15 seasons; and finished with the third-best plus-minus rating of plus-98 in one year.

These are fairy tale numbers.

It also took him just 424 games to reach the 1,000-point plateau and 575 games to amass 500 goals. This helped carve a path to eight consecutive Hart Trophy awards among nine overall. It’s comparing apples to oranges, but Jordan never won more than five regular season MVP awards and Babe Ruth never was honored (although to be fair, the award wasn’t handed out until after his prime years).

Gretzky in his familiar Oilers pose en route to winning seven straight Art Ross trophies.
Gretzky in his familiar Oilers pose en route to winning seven straight Art Ross trophies.Andy Devlin/Getty Images

Let’s not forget Gretzky’s playoff excellence, too. His output didn’t drop off from the regular season. Gretzky averaged 1.84 points per game in the postseason, in the same NHL playoffs that are a brutal exercise in athleticism, stamina, physicality and mental endurance. They are unequaled in intensity for more than two and a half months for great teams that stay alive.

Gretzky boasts four Stanley Cups on his resume and registered 87 more playoff points than Messier (295), who is second on the list, in 28 fewer games. And, oh, he holds the record for the most game-winning goals in playoff history, shared only with Brett Hull.

According to the NHL Guide and Record Book, Gretzky holds or shares 61 records: 40 for the regular season, 15 for the Stanley Cup playoffs and six for the All-Star Game.

Gretzky played in a rugged NHL, a time when bench-clearing brawls were still en vogue. Some of the toughest pugilists, ala Bob Probert, circled the waters like sharks during Gretzky’s time.

But Gretzky was slippery as a snake, and like the supposed myths or realities of the Jordan Rules that were slanted in Jordan’s favor, there was an unwritten code that if you touched Gretzky, you had to deal with bodyguards Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley.  

Player safety, including equipment, was given nothing more than cursory attention during the era.  And year-round off-ice conditioning was popularized by Gretzky’s Edmonton teammate, Paul Coffey, who had an influential effect on the way Gretzky and the league prepared.

Simply said, a potent Gretzky took the game to a level no athlete had or will ever in any other sport.

Consider that “Sports Illustrated” named Gretzky the most dominant athlete ever out of any other sport. That’s a given. However, we’re taking that distinction one step further and adding in ‘greatest ever athlete,’ too.

Just as Jordan and Ruth’s faces are chiseled on sports’ Mount Rushmore, so too is Gretzkyexcept his mug is just a bit higher than anyone else.