The Orr-Gretzky Debate

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 14) — For the past 30 years, veteran hockey people have delightfully quibbled over choosing between Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky as the greatest all-time player. I say delightfully because any person, such as myself, that was privileged to watch both careers in the National Hockey League understands he is choosing between multi-karat diamonds. There cannot be an equivocal conclusion.

This isn’t an Oswald vs. Conspiracy argument. Nor can such a comparison be made in the other three major professional sports. Ask a long-time observer about the greatest players in football or baseball and a dozen candidates will be submitted. Inquire about basketball and good luck hearing a name other than Michael Jordan. Only in hockey is there a virtual deadlock among two players, though Gordie Howe is almost always – and justifiably – part of the dialogue. Ultimately, however, Orr and Gretzky stand alongside one another at the cusp of any such deliberation.

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And, the reasons are spectacularly transparent:

? Orr changed the complexion of hockey. The term “revolutionized” has often been cited but even it doesn’t properly advocate how he brought the game into an entirely new dimension. No one in the NHL had ever skated like the Parry Sound, Ont. native — with such a wondrous blend of speed and raw power. He therefore owned the puck and could solely dictate the tempo of any game. No player before or since has killed a penalty the way Orr did. He would gather in the puck behind his own net; skate untouched to center ice, then turn around and go back to where he started. If an opposing player tried to force the issue, Orr would either speed past him; flip the puck down the ice or start another circuit into the Bruins zone. It was like watching a father play street-hockey with his five-year-old son.

Prior to Orr, the notion of a defenseman winning the NHL scoring title had never been considered. It was the equivalent, then, of a pitcher winning the National League batting title today. In other words, preposterous. Then came the 1969-70 season and Orr finished atop the NHL with a mind-boggling 120 points — his 87 assists never before accomplished by any player. He broke that mark the following year, registering 102 assists, and then won a second scoring title in 1974-75 with 46 goals and 139 points. Nearly four decades later, Orr holds the top four single-season assist totals for defensemen (102, 90, 89, 87) and the ’74-75 mark of most points in a season by a blue-liner (Paul Coffey of the Edmonton Oilers broke Orr’s record for goals with 48 in 1985-86). Orr won the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy with Boston in 1970 and 1972 — his overtime clincher against St. Louis at Boston Garden on May 10, 1970 among the most legendary goals in hockey history.

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BOBBY ORR’S ROOKIE CARD FROM THE TOPPS 1966-67 NHL SET IS CURRENTLY SELLING ON EBAY (IN MINT CONDITION) FOR $10,000. I HAVE ONE-SUCH CARD AS PART OF THE FULL SET.

? Though Gretzky was in a class by himself, he didn’t change the game quite as fundamentally as Orr. Rest assured, however, there will never be another player like him. When I say “never,” I’m referring to the lifetime of every person reading this blog. How can I be so sure? Well, the NHL is coming up on its 100th anniversary season in 2016-17 and there’s been only one Gretzky so far. Given the average North American life expectancy of 80, the chances of a clone aren’t very good.

Gretzky had the most advanced brain in the history of professional athletics. His ability to anticipate the play; to somehow calculate the whereabouts of every player on the ice and to feed the puck with uncanny accuracy made him an unstoppable force. Within two months of his first NHL game – Edmonton at Chicago, Oct. 10, 1979 – it was clear that no offensive record stood a chance. Once combined with the talent of linemate Jarri Kurri and defenseman Coffey (the most fluid skater in the league), Gretzky cut a swath through every meaningful number in NHL history.

More than 15 years after his celebrated final game with the New York Rangers (Apr. 18, 1999), Gretzky holds more than 60 individual records – including most goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857). Had Gretzky not scored a single goal, his assists total alone would place him 76 points ahead of Mark Messier (1,887) atop the all-time list. Gretzky also maintains the single-season marks for goals (92), assists (163) and points (215). On four occasions, he recorded 205 or more points. Mario Lemieux of Pittsburgh came closest with 199 in 1988-89. Gretzky is also atop the career list in playoff goals (122), assists (260) and points (382). He won four Stanley Cup titles in Edmonton during a remarkable five-year span: 1984–1988.      

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ON MAY 1, 2011, WAYNE GRETZKY’S O-PEE-CHEE ROOKIE CARD (LEFT) SOLD AT A CALIFORNIA AUCTION FOR A RECORD $94,163. THE OPENING BID WAS $25,000. TOP EBAY PRICE CURRENTLY IS $6,500; I HAVE ONE-SUCH CARD AS PART OF THE FULL 1979-80 NHL SET.

How, then, does one choose between Orr and Gretzky as the greatest player of all time? It is imperative, in my view, to have witnessed both careers. As such, a person must be my age (55) or older. Beyond that, the choice is purely subjective.

I lean marginally toward Orr because he was nothing less than a freak of nature. In the evolution of man, Orr stood on an island. During his prime years (1969–1975), he was so much better than the second-best player in the NHL for there to be no reasonable comparison. When Orr began his career at 18 in 1966-67 (the final year of the six-team NHL), the game’s other premier stars — Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Beliveau and Stan Mikita — were either old or getting up in age. None could match his ability. In Orr’s mid-to-latter years (1969-70 to 1974-75), he was still dramatically better, on wonky knees, than anyone in hockey’s best league.

Though Gretzky was clearly the No. 1 NHL performer during the bulk of his 18-year career, others were at least in the conversation — primarily Lemieux, Messier, Peter Stastny, Denis Savard and Jaromir Jagr. During Orr’s career, no player approached his brilliance the way Lemieux closed ranks on Gretzky. When he returned from cancer treatment to lead the NHL with 160 points in just 60 games during the 1992-93 season, Lemieux pulled off the greatest feat in professional sports history.

Sadly, we will never know how dominant Orr could have been, or how long he might have played in the NHL. A collision with defenseman Marcel Pronovost of the Toronto Maple Leafs in his rookie year began a sequence of debilitating knee injuries that likely robbed him of an entire decade. With advancing medical technology, Orr could have plied his trade well into the 1980’s — therefore matching up, head-to-head, with Gretzky. Instead, his crippled knees led to premature retirement in November 1978 at just 30 years of age (Gretzky retired at 38).

Orr’s last hurrah will be ingrained among those, such as myself, who were privileged to watch it. On essentially one leg, he was the best player and MVP of the inaugural Canada Cup tournament in 1976. That event included such others as Esposito, Hull, Stastny, Bobby Clarke, Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Gilbert Perreault, Larry Robinson, Borje Salming, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald — most younger than Orr; all now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

As such, my vote is still No. 4 over No. 99.

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LEFT-TO-RIGHT: ORR, DENIS POTVIN AND BOBBY CLARKE DURING THE 1976 CANADA CUP TOURNAMENT. CANADA DEFEATED CZECHOSLOVAKIA IN THE BEST-OF-THREE FINAL ON A LEGENDARY OVERTIME GOAL BY DARRYL SITTLER. ORR WAS TOURNAMENT MVP.

THANKSGIVING WEEKEND THOUGHTS: As I was walking back into my apartment late Sunday night, I got blown over by an unexpected gust of wind. Only upon regaining my feet did I realize it was a collective sigh of relief from panicked hockey fans across the city — buoyed by the Maple Leafs 6-3 romp over the Rangers in New York… How do so many otherwise-balanced people completely lose their minds after two losses to begin an 82-game season? And, if a couple of hockey games cultivates such insanity, how do these people survive an actual crisis (health, financial)? Perhaps, gripping over the Leafs allows for anger and anxiety to be released on a distraction rather than something tangible, like another person. Otherwise, I’m stumped… For those who absurdly elevated their blood pressure after the first two Leaf games, may I remind you the hockey club was 3–0 to begin last season. And, it didn’t prevent the Leafs from folding like a blanket in the final two weeks. As I wrote here a few days ago, try and save some energy for those waning days of the schedule when you might really need it… If he remains healthy, as per usual, Phil Kessel will again score between 35 and 40 goals for the Maple Leafs. Still, he did himself no favor by admitting to a paltry workout schedule over the summer. The Leafs pay Kessel $8 million a year not only for his talent but for a level of commitment off the ice. I’ve often wondered why he looks go gassed after a long shift — gliding slowly to the bench; wheezing in and out once he arrives. Maybe now we have our answer… The Leafs played well in New York but were fortunate to confront Henrik Lundqvist so early in the schedule. The Rangers goalie seems to hit his stride around mid-season and improve as the stakes increase. He was a virtual impostor Sunday night when compared to the stopper that led New York to the Eastern Conference title last spring. Leafs do not play again at Madison Square Garden this season. The Rangers come to Toronto Nov. 8 and Feb. 10…

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HENRIK LUNDQVIST STUNK OUT THE GARDEN ON SUNDAY, YIELDING ALL SIX TORONTO GOALS. HERE, DAVID CLARKSON MAKES IT 6-2 LEAFS AT 15:13 OF THE SECOND PERIOD, AFTER WHICH LUNDQVIST WAS REPLACED BY CAM TALBOT. BRUCE BENNETT GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

For those confused with the title to this section of my blog, we Canucks celebrate Thanksgiving a full month before you good people south of the 49th… To hockey broadcasters regarding Roman Polak, acquired by the Leafs from St. Louis in the off-season: Is it Po-lack or Po-lock, as heard several times over the weekend?… I’ve never hidden my affinity for Don Cherry — the best-ever entertainer on hockey television. On Saturday, during his Coach’s Corner rant about the Leafs ignoring Canadian-born players in the draft, he said the club returned scrawny first-round pick William Nylander to Sweden “to save his life.” I nearly lost consciousness from laughing so hard. Cherry also left notice he will neither calm down nor alter his line of reasoning for the Rogers people now in control of Hockey Night In Canada. Which could make for some interesting moments ahead… Speaking of Hockey Night, I enjoyed the debut of Rogers’  nationwide production, especially the intermission pace. New host George Stroumboulopulos smartly moved around the varied elements — all of which were full of energy. A quick-hit of NHL information between Damien Cox and Elliotte Friedman came off well as did a stand-up demonstration of face-off strategy with Mark Messier and Nick Kypreos. Stroumboulopoulos, whose last name I have twice butchered in this space, has quickly become a polarizing figure, likely because of Ron MacLean’s enduring popularity. Strombo’s delivery and background are much different than MacLean’s and will require an adjustment on behalf of traditional viewers. But, if given a reasonable chance by that segment of the audience, George will be recognized as as a host and interviewer that does everything well… I first met Stroumboulopoulos in the mid-90’s when he joined The FAN-590 as a night-time producer and part-time overnight host. He had long, scraggly hair back then and I’ll never forget approaching my female colleague, Jacqui Delaney, from behind at one of the newsroom work stations. “What’s up, Jacqui?” I asked, only to have George turn around. It was an awkward moment, but we both laughed. I’ll always have a soft spot for George, who hosted overnight when my son, Shane, was born here in Toronto. As my dad drove me home from Mount Sinai Hospital in a snowstorm just after 1 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1996, George said, “Howard’s family and our family here at The FAN have a new member.” Only Strombo could have put it that way… Much of Strombo’s time at The FAN was spent producing Spider Jones’ evening call-in show. Spider always referred to him as “Georgie Stroumboulopulos”… The delicious unpredictability of sports is on full display with the Kansas City Royals, who are halfway to a 12–0 playoff sweep. Any person forecasting a Royals–Baltimore American League Championship Series in April would have been asked to pee in a bottle. As Chris Berman of ESPN often says: “That’s why they play the games.”… Gordie Howe, suffering from dementia, is in such precarious health that he will not be able to promote his new autobiography. MISTER HOCKEY – MY STORY will be released this week. The 256-page hardcover book is published by Penguin Canada Group and has a list price of $32.00. It can be purchased at a 40% discount ($20) here in Canada at chapters.indigo.ca…

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Condolences to family and friends of Ralphael Platner, who most of you have never heard of. Platner was instantly recognizable to sports fans attending live events here in Toronto as a program seller — outside and inside the arena. A fixture for decades at Maple Leaf Gardens, Exhibition Stadium, SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) and the Air Canada Centre, Ralphael died this week after a prolonged illness. He was 64. Known for his marine-like brush-cut and thick, horn-rimmed glasses, Platner became a local legend for his encyclopedic memory of sports and world events. At an earlier stage of his life, he was nicknamed “Ralph the Bar Crasher” for his propensity to show up — unannounced and uninvited — at Bar Mitzvah receptions in the north part of the city. Once the sweet table appeared, Ralph would cautiously open the party-hall door; look around for people he might know, and then help himself to a pastry. He made it to my Bar Mitzvah on Feb. 5, 1972 but scampered away when he saw me. I ran out and invited him to join us. I once gave Ralph a ride home after a Blue Jays game and was blown away by his instant knowledge of dates and events. It won’t be the same outside our sports venues without him… As he did on a few occasions last season, James Reimer capably subbed in goal for Jonathan Bernier during Sunday’s Leaf victory at New York. Under normal circumstances, a coach would come back with his No. 1 netminder for the following game. But, Randy Carlyle is in anything but a normal circumstance. Most believe he requires a string of good results in order to keep his job beyond Christmas. As such, Carlyle could be looking at “now” rather than the big picture. Leafs host Colorado Tuesday night. Given that Bernier struggled in his first two games of the season, he should ideally get back on the horse and try to regain his form. It will be interesting to see if Carlyle agrees (UPDATE: Reimer starts)… Tuesday will mark the fourth time since 1999-2000 that the Avalanche has appeared at Air Canada Centre in the first two weeks of the schedule. In 2011-12, Colorado beat the Leafs 3-2 in a shoot-out on Oct. 17. Probably just a coincidence, but kind of odd given there were seasons when the Leafs and Avs did not hook up even once… Colorado began a four-game road trip Monday afternoon by stunning the Bruins 2-1 in Boston on a goal by Daniel Briere with less than one second remaining in regulation time. Avs play here, then head to Ottawa and Montreal before returning to Denver… So let’s see: After splitting their first four games and being humiliated at Kansas City on Monday Night Football, the New England Patriots were said to be at loggerheads with future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady. He could no longer be counted upon and an acrimonious divorce loomed. Just two weeks later, ‘ol Tom has sparked a pair of lop-sided victories: 43-17 over previously unbeaten Cincinnati and 37-22 at Buffalo on Sunday. Which again proves the absurdity of writing off the great ones… We know that football is a sport that largely evolves around the quarterback position. Here in Canada, that is profoundly clear with the defending Grey Cup-champion Saskatchewan Roughriders, who appear totally lost without their No. 1 pivot, Darian Durant – out for the season with an elbow injury. After a 9–1 start, the ‘Riders have lost five in a row, including a 40-9 embarrassment in Montreal on Monday. Two games earlier, Saskatchewan had been blanked, 24-0, at Edmonton… During Monday’s nationally-televised game, the Alouettes honored Anthony Calvillo, the Canadian Football League’s all-time passing leader (79,816 yards), who retired after last season. As a tribute to the player that wore No. 13, both 13-yard lines at Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal were painted red.

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THE 13-YARD LINES IN MONTREAL WERE PAINTED RED (LEFT) ON MONDAY TO HONOR RETIRED ALOUETTES QUARTERBACK ANTHONY CALVILLO, WHO APPEARED IN THE TSN BROADCAST BOOTH (RIGHT) BETWEEN DUANE FORDE AND ROD BLACK. TSN IMAGES

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