Thursday, September 16, 2004

Lemieux - le nom dit tout

(Updated with more Oiler-trashing)

A comment on the previous post calls me out on saying Lemieux is the greatest NHL player ever. I'm glad - I was half hoping I'd get a chance to elaborate. Conclusions first:

Most important hockey player ever: Wayne Gretzky
Most accomplished hockey player ever: Wayne Gretzky
Greatest hockey player ever: Mario Lemieux

Am I disrespecting Gretzky? Hell no. I attended many, many Oilers-Flames tilts in the Saddledome in the 80s, and when Gretzky took possession of the puck, it was the closest thing to "fear" I have ever experienced as a sports fan. He was a sublime player, and obviously sent me home crushed (by the game score) more often than not.

But, Mario was better. For years he had trouble shaking a "floater" rap which was very unfair. He took maybe half a season to make the transition from the QMJHL game. Past that, he may indeed have expended less energy than others away from the puck, only because he expended much more than others when he had it.

Highlight reel I'd love to see: Top 10 Mario goals on a delayed penalty. His ability to control the puck while dragging around some Gerald Diduck-type defenceman was incredible. The only comparable performance I've ever seen is by another guy who got a bad rap (at the time, anyway) for his heart: Jaromir Jagr.

1996 Playoffs - Penguins v. Capitals - game goes 4OTs, with Peter Nedved eventually scoring the winner with 45 seconds left in the 4th OT. Mario got tossed in the 2nd period for a "scrap" (trying to kick someone, as I recall). Anyway, Jagr played his ass off for 7 straight periods, on the ice at least half the time in OT. Was always, always, being obstructed by at least one Caps player. He didn't dive, he didn't give up, and he was by far the most dangerous player on the ice for most of 140 minutes.

The anecdote is off-topic, but it brings me to this: we all have certain areas of interest where, while research and discussion might be interesting, we are confident enough on the subject to observe it with our own eyes, draw our own conclusions, and Who Cares What You Or Anyone Else Thinks! For me, NHL hockey c. 1980-1996 is one of those things. Gretzky was brilliant, and the best thing that ever happened to the NHL. Lemieux was a better hockey player.

Lest anyone believe I have a whit of affection of the '80s Oilers, I will also add:
  • Every goalie in the '80s, before the debut of Patrick Roy, sucked, and Grant Fuhr was no exception. He wasn't even the best goalie on his own team most of the time. Without examining the competition too closely, I'm comfortable calling him the most overrated player in the Hall of Fame.
  • Mark Messier is absolutely the dirtiest player in NHL history who is best known for something besides his thuggery. There's a laundry list of NHL retirees with permanent back problems, post-concussion syndrome, and general pain who will back me up on this.
Oh, and Gretzky WAS a whiner.

UPDATE (5 minutes later): Looks like I could have saved myself the trouble of this post, and let Jass take care of it.

2UPDATE (320PM): The memories are flooding back. Marty McSorley, of course, reverted to form to round out his career; even in the Brashear coverage, though, I didn't hear anything about a previous incident involving the Flames. I'll let an Oiler fan tell you about it, mainly because "Koho vasectomy" probably belonged on this list.

And of course there was Carey Wilson's ruptured spleen, suffered in Game 6 of the 1986 Smythe Division Finals at the hands of, well, guess who (scroll way down). Hint: the Hockey Gods' revenge was swift.


At 11:18 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, but you said it much better than I did.

I like your comments on Jagr, too. No one, not even Mario in my opinion, is better at staying on their feet and retaining posession of the puck than Jagr.

Apparently, his thighs look like those of a speedskater (i.e., about four times the size of yours and mine).

At 1:11 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand what both of you are saying, and its not that I disagree, but I think your memory of Lemieux in the 90's might colour your memory of Gretzky in the 80's.

Sure, he didn't have Mario's size to score with one hand on his stick while dragging two defencemen with him, but most often he didn't have to, because he could find an open teammate in even the most congested situations. His vision of the game was truly spectacular, and a defining characteristic. At times, it was like he was playing with some kind of ESP.

I understand you're giving Mario extra credit because he played on poorer teams than Gretzky. But Gretzky was THE dominant player in the game during his prime, and elevated the play of all those around him to look a lot better than they were. Consider the Oilers without Gretzky - how many of those guys would be household names in his absence? I suspect not many, as evidenced by the success (or lack thereof) of many of those players when playing on other teams (either in international competition, or before and after they were Oilers).

All this talk of the late 80's does make me pine for the good old days of hockey when 100-point seasons and 50-goal scorers were more common. In today's clutch-and-grab game, Mario in his prime would probably be better than Gretzky in his prime, but that's more a commentary on what the game has become, rather than a comparison of the talent of these two players.

Anshu (who forgot to sign his previous comment)

At 1:34 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Consider the Oilers without Gretzky - how many of those guys would be household names in his absence?"

They did win the Stanley Cup without him in 89/90 . . .

At 9:15 a.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Jerry, I agree with 90% of what you have to say - wait a minute...since we're talking sports, I can confidently bump that up to 110% - but on the Gretzky/Lemieux debate, I'm with The Great One.

Don't get me wrong - Lemieux is amazing. I think one of the goals he'll be best remembered for by those under the age of 30 is the one in Salt Lake where he let it go through his legs to Kariya. How good do you have to be to get credit for a goal where you don't even show up on the scoresheet?But Gretzky was pure magic. He could disappear on the ice. He could make passes nobody else would have thought to make, let alone completed. And although he'll be remembered primarily as an assist man, he scored 92 goals in the '81-'82 season.Maybe Lemieux could have been better if he'd stayed healthy. There's a really good argument that Orr could have too. But they didn't, and Gretz is the best.

At 10:48 a.m., Blogger Matt said...

To clarify again: I don't believe, at all, that Gretzky is overrated, I think Lemieux is underrated. I will concede that there are some awesome arguments for Wayne where statistics only tell part of the story.

50 goals in 39 games (in the 92-goal season) was stupendous, but how many people recall that he was at 41 goals through 37 games? He scored 4 in Game 38, then ripped off 5 against the Flyers in Game 39.

Recall also that the 163 assists in 85-86 was the result of a conscious pre-season decision on his part to see just how many he could get. And after Charlie Huddy won the Emory Edge Award (+/-), and Gretzky heard it a bit about being on the ice for too many goals against, he essentially said "screw that", and no other Oiler ever won it again (he did 3 more times).

At 1:31 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill James once observed that if you go back to the contemporary records of baseball in the 1920s and 1930s you can find at least two dozen pitchers who were described as "throwing harder than Walter Johnson". This chiefly demonstrates not that any of these people were right, but that Johnson was the standard by which others were measured. So too with any argument against Gretzky as the greatest ever; it merely serves to strengthen one's conviction as to the converse.

And any Flames fan wishing to convict Mark Messier of dirty play had better at least mention the words "Gary Suter", or be prepared to be dismissed as a five-Cup-envying whiny little bitch... -Colby Cosh

At 3:24 p.m., Blogger Matt said...

The Stinkin' Badger warranted his own post.


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