Better than Gretzky

Before I begin (discussing a hockey player who is better than Wayne Gretzky, as you’ve probably gleaned from the title), I think it’s important to take a good look at the word “better.” “Better” can be supported by opinion and/or fact—though sometimes neither. The qualifications for the label are massively subjective.

But things can be irrefutably better than others—usually settled with quantitative data. In the realm of professional athletes, “better” is usually settled on the stat-sheets, in championship rings, in immortalized moments of sporting glory (Even right here I see a problem. I’d cite 1980. The Miracle On Ice. Mike Eruzione and a ragtag bunch of kids from the U.S.A. beat the seemingly indomitable U.S.S.R.—complete with the freak athlete Tretiak–who got yanked for like the first time ever in his life–between the pipes and Boris Mikhailov on the offensive. Does that make the U.S.A. the better team? They were the best on that day, but to call them better than the Russians would frankly be bananas. This warrants an examination in its own right—but enough of that tangent). In baseball, you’d compare batting averages to determine who is a better hitter than whom. With basketball, you’d compare free-throw percentages and the determination of “better” becomes fairly cut and dry. But movVancouver - New York Rangerse into the abstract, and you’ll watch the issues arise. Replace the word “better” with “best,” and you’ll watch the issues multiply.

Most hockey fans do not have any qualms with the statement: “Wayne Gretzky is the best hockey player to ever play the game.” He dominates the record-books, his hockey IQ was off the proverbial chart and no player is ever going to outwardly bad-mouth him. He might never be dethroned as “The Great One.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t dissenters. Show me two informed long-time hockey fans during the second intermission of any game, talking about legends over beers, and it’s not far off to imagine that the idea of Gretzky being the greatest hockey player of all time isn’t met with some friction.

My father, who grew up in East Cambridge and watched the Big Bad Boston Bruins at the garden (not this TD shit), will tell you that the greatest player of all time was Bobby Orr. I love number four, but disagree. Hockey historians might tell you it was Gordie Howe. I’m more inclined to agree there, but still am not entirely sold. Some kid who was a developing fetus when Gretzky hung up his skates in ’99 might tell you that, hands down, Sidney Crosby is the best. I’m more inclined to agree with this than I am with Bobby Orr, though less inclined than I am to agree with Gordie Howe.

I can say with utmost certainty, however, that there are players who have played the game, some still (hint, hint) playing the game, who are better than Gretzky.

If you’re wondering why, it’s because to be the “best” hockey player, you need to be able to do more than score goals and dish out assists. It’s a sport that’s dependent on more than the stat-sheet. It’s a nuanced game.

People cheer just as loud for fights as they do goals. A nice solid hip-check can have as much effect on a play as a well-delivered pass. A forward who can back-check is just as valuable—if not more valuable—than a purebred offensive weapon. Goals win on the scoreboard, but hockey players win games. Gretzky could light up the scoreboard and the stat-sheet, but the other aspects of his game were severely lacking.

If you google search “better than Gretzky,” your resultant hyperlinked headlines will contain names like Ovechkin, Lemieux, the aforementioned Crosby, Orr and Gordie Howe.

There’s one very conspicuous absence. A name who played alongside Lemieux and was just—at 44 years of age—playing top line right wing in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs (until the Panthers got eliminated, which is neither here nor there).

His reputation and mullet precede him: Jaromir Jagr.

jaromir_jagr_pregame_2008-05-04Here’s the issue (and I won’t talk about eras or rule-changes or goalie pads or butterfly technique or anything like that):

There’s more to being a hockey player than scoring goals and being extremely skilled.

Look at Bobby Orr first—he revolutionized the game of hockey. Scorer? Yes. Skilled? Very. He was the first real offensive defenseman to ever grace the ice, and he skated like water flowing between cracks in asphalt. He also was not afraid to play the body. He was a cornerstone of the “Big Bad Bruins.” Yet the one pitfall of Orr’s place in this conversation is the issue of longevity. He only played 657 games. How can we compare him to the other greats when some of them played twice as many? How can we know he would’ve sustained a high level of play? Answer: we can’t.

Mario Lemieux had the same issue: too many injuries. Durability is huge in the game of hockey. It’s a long season of a demanding sport and a good player needs to have the capability to either not get injured or play through injuries. Players skate with punctured lungs. Players break their legs and finish their shifts (tipping my hand here, I’m a Bruins fan).

Look at Gordie Howe—Mr. Hockey. The Gordie Howe Hat Trick: a goal, assist and a fight. Key word being fight. Goals win games, assists are indicative of hockey sense, but fights are right in there too. The nickname “Mr. Hockey” is almost as high of praise as “The Great One.” Though the NHL is taking player safety more into account than ever before, hockey’s always been a sport about the tough guys. Spitting out teeth, dropping the gloves, throwing heavy checks. If you asked me to name a great hockey player, these tough guy traits would be on my list of qualifications.

That’s my problem with Gretzky. He didn’t have these traits. I see him as a specialist. He was, for lack of a better cliché, a one-trick-pony. He had the best hockey brain there ever was, the best there probably’ll ever be, but his cerebral excellence is offset—to a degree—by a lack of physical presence.

He could anticipate the play like nobody had ever dreamed (in my peewee locker room, our coach used to ask us” “Why was Gretzky so good?” to which we’d all reply in unison: “ANTICIPATION!”) That’s really all he had going for him. He could skate, shoot and pass, but when it came time to defend himself he would’ve been screwed without Semenko and McSorley.

But let’s get back to earth here—my argument is that Jagr is “better” than Gretzky, his physical strength being one of the main reasons why. Jaromir Jagr can pass, score, shoot and skate extremely well, but he also has an ass the size of a semi-truck that he can park up in front of the net and no defenseman is going to have an easy time moving him. He’s got the strength that makes him damn near impossible to get the puck away from along the boards.

He’s taken hits from guys like Ovechkin (over a decade his junior!) and Bortuzzo and you don’t see him complain about it. On the Bortuzzo hit, for which Bortuzzo was suspended, he said:

“It’s not about me. To me, if he’s not suspended at all it doesn’t matter. I’m old. Maybe I’m not going to play again. Who knows? But what about if the same thing happens to the guys who sell the game? A younger guy. They’re tying to change the game and be more careful with concussions. I think they should look at this, too.”

Getting hit is part of the game. Gretzky was a notorious whiner while Jagr just accepts it as it is and thinks about the game as a whole. He loves the game, plain and simple. He’s a manifestation of it.

He’s got a classic hockey toothless grin. It’s these intangibles that make Jagr better than Gretzky—the things outside of the stat columns. He’s a personality, a player for the fans, a cult hero with a troupe of “traveling Jagrs” that follows him around, game to game, sporting mullet wigs and jerseys of the different teams he’s played for (though not all organizations are represented). The last person I saw wearing a Gretzky jersey was Justin Bieber

Missing teeth aside, Jagr works his ass off. Not to say that Gretzky didn’t, but Jagr’s work ethic is the stuff of myth. His teammates, including Kevin Weekes, can attest. And even still, at 44, he’s known for his late-night sprints through hotel hallways, often donning weighted vests or other forms of resistance. His refusal to be slowed by age is legendary, and fans could wax poetic about the lore of Jagr, though I think Dylan Thomas captures Jagr’s spirit: “Do not go gentle…” and believe me, #68 is not.

Let’s take a look at the stats, just for the sake of quantitative comparison:

Gretzky: 1,487 GP, 894 goals, 1963 assists, 2857 pts, +518, 91 GWG

Jagr: 1,629 GP (and counting), 749 goals, 1,119 assists, 1868 pts, +314, 133 GWG

So yeah, in the stats columns, Gretzky has Jagr beat. Nobody has dubbed Jagr “the great one,” and Jagr sports a 37 game scoring drought in his last playoff appearances. Hard to imagine Gretzky ever going that long without scoring in postseason hockey.

Did Gretzky score 92 goals in one (his third) season? Yes. Is he the only player to have his number retired from the entire National Hockey League? Yes. He is absolutely deserving of his title: “The Great One,” I reluctantly admit.

I’m making concessions—just keep reading. Hear me out.

Looking at their careers, the first apparent win for Jagr is games played: 1,629 career games (and counting) to Gretzky’s 1,487. Feats of durability for both athletes, yes.

Jagr played 79 games this year, scored 27 goals, had 39 assists, and still played around 17 minutes per game. It’s hard to understand how much of an accomplishment that is for a dude his age playing for a team with young talent like Reilly Smith, Barkov, Huberdeau, etc.

Jagr plans on playing until age 50, and if he achieves that, I believe that alone is enough to push him past Gretzky in the ranks of hockey GOATs. I believe that it’s also worth acknowledging the GWG category, where Jagr has Gretz beat by 42 goals. Sure, he’s had a hundred-plus extra games to rack up those numbers, but it just exemplifies the fact that Jagr shows up when he’s needed—he scores the big goals. And while Gretzky probably set up more GWG than Jagr could ever score on his own, there’s something to be said for being the guy who actually ends up putting the puck past the netminder and securing a victory for his team.

Jaromir Jagr is a reminder to hockey fans and players everywhere just why we love the game. Why we played, play, watch, or started watching the sort of Canadian bastard-child of mainstream sports that is professional hockey. He poses for photos with fans during warmups, like a truly appreciative professional athlete. Does this make him special? No. Plenty of athletes do it—but to be a great and to have been a great for as long as he has, it’s easy to let the ego run riot and he clearly hasn’t allowed that to happen. And the fans have noticed. Jagr bridges generations of hockey fans who’ve all had the pleasure of watching him play. Look at any of his social media pages. The comments are riddled with iterations of “Legend,” “GOAT,” and “What a beauty.” He is the quintessence of what a hockey player is and should be. The image in which all hockey players are made. #99’s numbers aside, his fans aren’t nearly as devout as Jaromir Jagr’s, and they’re arguably fewer in number. There’s never been a player so universally admired as Jagr. And that—in and of itself—is that not enough to give Jagr the edge over “The Great One?”

Jagr smiles—like I’ve already said—with missing teeth. He still has a god damned mullet! He’s revered all over the league because he’s Jaromir Jagr, because he still seems more human than Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky was untouchable, and he still feels that way. He’s like the precious gem of hockey that only lives behind ten layers of protective glass and motion detectors. “The Great One” is more Pope of the sport than fan-favorite. Jagr is the people’s player. The one out shaking hands—he’d probably kiss your baby if you asked him—just playing the game because he fucking loves it. He’s undeniably slower than he was. His prime is in the rearview, no doubt about it. But his ego remains out of it. He plays, he’s a competitor, and he’s helping to usher in the next era of greats from the ice rather than a press-box.

There’s something to be said for that.

So next time you hear somebody say that #99 was the greatest player of all time, think about the word “great.” Think about the word “best.” And then think about the others—Lemieux, Orr, Howe—think about Jaromir Jagr.

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