Buck O’Neil would say something wonderful about Negro Leagues player Cool Papa Bell. You probably know about Cool Papa’s speed. The stories are fun — he was so fast he got hit with his own line drive, so fast he scored from first on a bunt, so fast he could turn out the lights and be under the covers before the room got dark. Here’s a true one: Bell was so fast that legendary Olympian Jesse Owens, who would often race Negro Leagues players to thrill the crowds, flatly refused to race Cool Papa.
People would often ask Buck: “How fast was Cool Papa Bell?”
And, in an instant, Buck would say: “Faster than that.”
His point, I always thought, was that Cool Papa Bell was above such trivialities as stopwatch time. His legend was the thing. He was the fastest player of his time and utterly thrilling to watch but beyond that, he was a symbol of something so grander than tenths of a second. He was a symbol of all those great baseball players that America never saw because of blindness and intolerance. Nobody could EVER be faster than Cool Papa Bell.
In so many ways, Wayne Gretzky’s brilliance is much like Cool Papa Bell’s speed.
“How great was Wayne Gretzky?” the young people who never saw him play will ask.
And, even as we dive in to find some kind of answer, the truest answer is and always will be: “Greater than that.”
* * *
The Great One turned 55 years old this week, and that requires a recitation of the glorious hockey statistics that remain untouched to this very day. He’s the only player to score 200 points in a season — he did it four times. He has almost 1,000 more career points than any other player. He has the top two goal-scoring seasons, the top four point seasons and eleven of the top 12 assist seasons. He scored 50 goals in 39 games one year.
If the NHL does not fundamentally change, he will have these records forever.
But this is the point: The NHL has fundamentally changed. This happens in sports. No one will ever approach Cy Young’s 511 career victories or Wilt Chamberlain’s 50-points per game average for a season. No one has hit .400 in 75 years, and it’s possible no one ever will.
So, when you try to define Gretzky, you have to dig deeper than his extraordinary numbers. These days, goals are much harder to score for various reasons. Goalie pads are bigger (probably too big). Goaltenders are better. Defenses are tighter. Fewer penalties are called. In Gretzky’s remarkable 92-goal season, teams scored an average of four goals per game. Now, teams average about 2.6 goals per game. It’s a whole different kind of hockey.
Hockey, on the whole, has been a bit more reluctant to dive into the advanced numbers that baseball analysts thrive on (the NHL website, for instance, has recently made a bit of a mess with its enhanced numbers). But there are hockey analysts who try to put numbers in the context of their time. For instance, there’s a statistic called “adjusted goals,” which, well, adjusts the goals based on roster size and schedule length and how many goals are scored throughout the league.
As you can see here, Wayne Gretzky’s untouchable 92-goal season is tied for seventh in adjusted goals:
1. Brett Hull, 1990-91, 86 real goals, 78 adjusted
2. Alex Ovechkin, 2007-08, 65 real goals, 72 adjusted
3. Mario Lemieux, 1988-89, 85 real goals, 71 adjusted
4. Cooney Weiland, 1929-30, 43 real goals, 70 adjusted
(tie) Phil Esposito, 1970-71, 76 real goals, 70 adjusted
6. Wayne Gretzky, 1983-84, 87 real goals, 69 adjusted
7. Babe Dye, 1924-25, 38 real goals, 68 adjusted
(tie) Steven Stamkos, 2011-12, 60 real goals, 68 adjusted
(tie) Wayne Gretzky, 1981-82, 92 real goals, 68 adjusted
When counting adjusted goals, Gretzky falls to third all-time behind Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr. When looking at adjusted points, his four 200-point seasons adjust down to 170, 166, 163, 156 — still great but no longer singular totals. When looking at these advanced numbers, Gretzky finds himself on the same stage as Howie Morenz and Mario Lemieux and Frank Boucher.
Not that this is a bad stage to be on, but it sparks the question: How do you define Gretzky’s greatness without falling back on his pristine numbers?
You could, of course, talk about the aesthetics of Gretzky. He was such a beautiful player to watch. He seemed to glow on the ice as if he had been touched by a yellow highlighter. He perched himself behind the net and flipped geometrically-gorgeous passes over sticks and under pads and directly into teammates’ one-timer shots. He would slide in and out of raging defense, with the puck glued to his stick, and then precisely at the right instance he would flip a shot into the tiniest crack of light.
But aesthetics are a matter of personal taste. Some people don’t like Gretzky hockey. Some might prefer the bruising grace of Lemieux or Mark Messier, the elegance and blinding speed of Bobby Orr on the break, the rifle shot of one of the Hulls, the violent wonder of Gordie Howe, the sheer gall of Sidney Crosby. There are a hundred others too, and in my experience when you start talking about how beautiful a player Gretzky was, well, someone always points out that he was protected by teammates (and referees?). Nobody, they say, would just let him stand behind the net like that in today’s game.
I asked two of the most knowledgeable hockey friends I have — sports statistical analyst Tom Tango and Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur — to describe Gretzky’s greatness. As I suspected, they came at the challenge in very different ways.
Tom is obviously scientific in his thinking: He breaks things down to molecular levels. When considering Gretzky’s place in hockey history, he thinks you have to determine Gretzky’s place in his own time.
For example, he says: “Gretzky (and Lemieux) in the 1987 Canada Cup dominated the greatest players in the world, their own teammates, and the Russian Five and everyone else. Does Crosby do that? Did anyone else, before, or after?”
Wayne Gretzky played in three Canada Cups from 1981 to 1987. He led the world in scoring in all three.
What about earlier? Gretzky played in the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in 1978, this against the bulk of the Russian team that would dominate the world (including Sergei Makarov, who many would call the greatest player in the world). Gretzky led the world in scoring then, too.
What about his time in the brutal World Hockey Association? “Even in the rough and tumble WHA when they thought he’d be eaten alive as an ‘underage’ player, he shined,” Tom says. “So many angles with him where he always stands out.”
And this is Tom’s point: In the end, an athlete cannot do anything more than performing brilliantly in his own time and space. And in Gretzky’s time and space, he was unlike anyone. When 50 goals in 50 games was the very height of the goal-scoring imagination, he scored 50 in 39 games. When 100 points was considered a star’s level, he scored 200 points. When 76 goals in a year was Phil Esposito’s seemingly unbreakable record, Gretzky scored 92.
He played in an era of legends — Lemieux, Messier, Bourque, Yzerman — but he was separate from them. He was not just better, but fundamentally different. They were great hockey players. But he was The Great One.
Bruce Arthur comes at that theme from a more emotional perspective. He was a Vancouver fan growing up but, more than that, he was a Canadian, and there was something about Gretzky that crossed all boundaries, something patriotic and nationalistic that no current player — not even Olympic hero Crosby — can match.
Gretzky made people proud to be Canadian.
“I think of the elegance of how he played, with a vision that felt like unlocking some key to a new place,” Bruce says. “The numbers are stamped on my brain: 92, 50 in 39, 212, 215, because as a kid you’d look at them in a book or on a hockey card and they didn’t seem real.”
When Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles — “promised Mess I wouldn’t do this,” he said as he wiped tears from his eyes — Bruce remembers feeling betrayed, even as a Canucks fan.
He remembers how wrong Gretzky looked in other team uniforms, particularly St. Louis. He remembers the endless Gretzky advertisements on television and in the magazines. He remembers the emotional last game in New York. Bruce remembers how unhappy Gretzky seemed in the years after retirement (“Last time I saw him, Hockey Hall of Fame, he looked happier, though”). He remembers Gretzky having to endure being on the back of that pickup truck while people ran after him during the Olympic Games in Vancouver.
“Gretzky is so big, so vast, you don’t think of one thing,” Bruce says. “You think of almost everything.”
The legend of Gretzky will always reign over the sport, of course. Babe Ruth began playing Major League Baseball 100 years ago and, even now, the vast majority of fans see him as the greatest baseball player who ever lived. The hard questions about Ruth (How would he fare against sliders? Against relievers? At night? In a truly national game? Against worldwide competition?) don’t matter much. Ruth is the best ever because Ruth is the best ever. And so it is with Gretzky.
But there is every reason to believe — more than 15 years after he retired — that even on the most unsentimental level, Gretzky is the greatest hockey player of them all. He was a child prodigy who, like Mozart, defied the rules of gravity in his craft. He imagined a new way to play. Sure defenses are tougher now, and goaltenders are better now, and he might get roughed up a bit more. But so what? Gretzky always found a way. Geniuses are like that.