Could Wayne Gretzky set records in today's NHL?
Co-author of "Unbreakable: 50 Goals in 39 Games" on the Great One's greatest mark and how hockey has changed
Seventeen years after hanging up his skates — in '99, of course — Wayne Gretzky still holds many of hockey's most cherished records.
No one in NHL history has racked up more regular-season goals (894), assists (1,963), points (2,857) or hat tricks (50), and Gretzky remains the all-time playoff scoring leader by a wide margin. In terms of single-season marks, the Great One holds the four highest point totals, the top seven for assists and the top two for goals — including his astonishing 92-goal assault in 1981-82.
That season also produced what Gretzky has called his favourite record, which is the focus of the new book Unbreakable: 50 Goals in 39 Games. Authors Mike Brophy and Todd Denault take readers on a game-by-game tour of Gretzky's quest to become the fastest to reach one of hockey's premier milestones, culminating in the 20-year-old Oilers star's obliterating the mark shared by Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy with a five-goal outburst against Philadelphia on Dec. 30, 1981.
We chatted with Brophy, a veteran hockey writer, about his favourite Gretzky fact, what made the Great One the greatest, and what he'd do to give today's players a shot at approaching the record.
CBC Sports: What's your favourite thing about the 50-in-39 record?
Mike Brophy: In those 39 games, there were 11 games in which Gretzky did not score a goal. So that means he scored 50 goals in 28 games. He scored a combined nine goals in games 38 and 39. Walter Gretzky had planned to travel with the Oilers in an effort to see Wayne break the record, but he was at home because it happened so suddenly.
CBC: You make the point that Gretzky wasn't the fastest skater, he had a relatively weak shot, his upper-body strength was lacking. How was he able to dominate?
MB: From the first time I saw him play hockey at the Golden Horseshoe tournament in Burlington Ont., it was his vision on the ice that separated him from other players. It's been said a million times, but his father taught him to go where the puck is going, not where it is. Anticipating how the play was going to unfold is what made Wayne such a special player. He was the smartest player, and his smarts carried him right to the very top.
CBC: Was he underrated physically? His superior conditioning and the accuracy of his shot are sometimes overlooked.
MB: Back in an era where perhaps not everybody was invested in their physical fitness, Wayne's dedication to the game set him apart. He always knew that, if he had two games coming up in the next three nights, he had to take care of his body, get his rest, eat properly.
CBC: Gretzky raised a few eyebrows recently by saying he doubts he could play in today's game. How do you think he would do?
MB: I still think he'd be the best player in the game, but I don't think he'd be as productive. The main reason is, if you go back and watch Gretzky in his prime, as he carries the puck up the ice, there's no back pressure. Nobody was putting pressure on him to make a quick decision to move the puck. That's one of the biggest differences between the game when Wayne was in his prime versus the game today.
CBC: In many ways, today's game is far superior to the one in 1981-82. Most teams have skilled players on all four lines, fitness is much better, and there's a commitment to defence. Yet the entertainment level seems lacking. Which era do you enjoy more?
MB: I like scoring, so I prefer the earlier era. I'll give you an example: we just had the World Cup of Hockey, and in my opinion the most boring team to watch at that tournament was the team that won it — Team Canada. The reason is that [head coach] Mike Babcock had his players, the best and most creative players in the world, playing 30-second shifts. You can't complain about the way he coaches because of his success, but several of those games were hard to watch.
I tried to imagine Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky being on that Team Canada, and I don't think they would have stood out. I think they would have been just one of 20 players. You can't go on the ice for 30 seconds and show your skill, your intuition, your instincts.
CBC: The NHL's top goal scorer last season was Alex Ovechkin, who had 50 in 79 games. Should the NHL do something to increase scoring?
MB: To me, it's obvious: make the net bigger. It always amazes me that, throughout the years, everything has changed in hockey except the size of the net. It drives me out of my mind: you see players coming in on net, and the goaltenders are so big now that they've got nothing to shoot at. Guy Lafleur would streak in on the right-hand side and wind up for a slap shot, and he could pick one of three or four places to shoot the puck. Now you don't have that luxury.
And there's such an emphasis on defence now. I like to joke that, when an NHL team finishes practice, the players go home and then the head coach and four or five assistants sit around for the next eight hours trying to figure out how to get scoring out of the game.