Who is the greatest NHL player of all time?
just right? Wayne Gretzky.
Who else but the player who has recorded the most goals, assists and points in league history over his 20-year NHL career? By the time Gretzky retired, he held 61 NHL records, most of which still stand today.
Gretzky’s place at the top of the charts hardly seems in question, so we won’t discuss it. Instead, it’s the other 99 digits following #99 that we need to sort out.
Welcome to NHL99, a project that aims to give a new twist to a well-known idea: who are the top 100 players in the history of the NHL’s post-1967 expansion? Let’s face it, there have been several previous attempts to name the best players of all time, so this is our starting point and primary optimization.
We didn’t want to walk the same old floor again. Instead, we wanted to try something new, and the post-1967 NHL seemed like a good place to start. Why? Because back then, the game and the ice hockey business had changed fundamentally. Instead of six teams, there were suddenly 12. Instead of a league dominated almost exclusively by Canadians, there was a trickle and finally a flood of players from all corners of the world.
Today the countdown begins. We call it NHL99 because there are 99 spots up for debate on our Top 100 list and the number 99 resonates with hockey fans everywhere.
So, spoiler alert, Wayne Gretzky is number 1 on our list. It could be argued that Gretzky actually belongs in the Hall of Fame in two categories – as a player and as a builder. Arguably no one has contributed more to growing the NHL game on and off the ice than Gretzky.
But after Gretzky, things get interesting and controversial. Nine authors out the athlete received voices in this project: Eric Duhatschek, Dom Luszczyszyn, Shayna Goldman, Ian Mendes, Scott Wheeler, Sean Gentille, Michael Russo, Sean McIndoe and James Mirtle. Voters each submitted a 100-player roster in Spring 2022, before the start of the playoffs, and points were awarded by position: 100 points for No. 1 on the roster, one point for No. 100, and so on. Gretzky scored a perfect 900 points. At the end of the project we will reveal all the ballots and the total score. If this sounds familiar, that’s because the athlete has done similar projects with the NBA, NFL, and MLB.
With our Top 100 list set, the countdown begins now. But this is more than just a countdown. From now through February, we’ll be featuring a player every day, six days a week, along with an in-depth feature that’s hopefully full of stories, angles, and anecdotes about these players that you’ve never read before. More than 40 authors from all over the world the athlete newsroom contributed to this project.
Now, a few key caveats about the process, starting with the realization that any list discussing the greatest of all time is going to be subjective and may include some recency bias. Again, our focus is strictly on the NHL from 1967 to the present.
That has to be said very clearly because you won’t find Gordie Howe on our list. Is it sacrilege to have a list of the greatest players of all time without Mr. Hockey? Maybe, but Howe only played 369 NHL games from 1967-68 and spent six seasons in the WHA. So he’s out. You won’t find Bobby Hull or Maurice Richard or Howie Morenz either.
Our most delicate and complicated decisions involved players who straddled the two ends of the spectrum. Some have slipped through the cracks because their greatest impact was before 1967. Some who will eventually qualify did not make the list because they are still in the early stages of their careers.
Our threshold was 400 completed games at the end of the 2021-22 regular season, which is the criteria for games played to qualify for NHL retirement. Austin Matthews (407 career games) just barely made it. Cale Makar not; He has only played 173 NHL regular season games. It’s a difficult line to draw, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
The overall goal was simple: tell 100 compelling stories about 100 influential NHL players, and ultimately maybe spark a conversation about who might have made the list and been overlooked.
One caveat though, if you want to add your favorite player or contest one of our selections, you must also remove someone from the list.
What you’ll find out over time as the list counts down may be easier said than done.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett, Gregory Shamus, Mike Powell, Justin K. Aller / Getty Images)
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