Time to take a dive into the history of the NHL and rank the seven greatest players of all time. There are always disagreements whenever the GOAT of any sport is talked about because sports change and it is difficult to compare players from different eras of a sport. That's what makes this topic so much fun.
The NHL was born
The National Hockey League was initially founded with four Canadian teams in 1917 to be one of the leagues that would compete for the Stanley Cup. From 1942 to 1967 the NHL only had six teams which is now deemed the era of the “Original Six”. In 1967 the NHL doubled in size and then it increased to 18 teams by 1974 and 21 teams in 1979. Between 1991 and 2000 the NHL further expanded to 30 teams. It added its 31st and 32nd teams in 2017 and 2021, respectively.
As the league expanded the game of hockey developed and changed. One of the players on this list is from the earliest years of the NHL, playing before WWII, while another player on the list is still playing in 2022.
The NHL GOAT
The NHL and NBA GOAT conversations are similar because there are three players that sit well above the rest of the competition for the greatest of all time. The top-3 on this list are the GOATs of the NHL but for fun, I wanted to put them in order and someone had to be first.
There are many factors that are taken into account to determine who the GOAT of a sport is. The first thing I look at is the impact on the game and individual success. Then, team success and longevity. Lastly, the eye test to see just how much better they were than their competition.
NHL players that did not quite make the list but are still some of the best that the NHL has ever seen; Doug Harvey, Sidney Crosby, Guy Lafleur, Mark Messier, Jean Beliveau, Steve Yzerman, Phil Esposito, Martin Brodeur, and Ray Bourque.
No. 7 – Jaromír Jágr
Jaromír Jágr was the fifth overall selection by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990 and helped them win consecutive Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. Jágr is one of the 30 members of the Triple Gold Club – individuals who have played for teams that have won the Stanley Cup (1991, 1992), the Ice Hockey World Championships (2005, 2010), and the Olympic gold medal in ice hockey (1998).
He currently is fourth in games played and second in points scored in NHL history. He has won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring champion five times (four in a row), the Lester B. Pearson Award for the NHL's Outstanding Player three times, and the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's MVP once, while finishing second four times.
No. 6 – Bobby Hull
Bobby Hull played for a combined 23 years in the NHL and World Hockey Association. Hull is remembered for his incredible skating speed, high-velocity slap shots, and his golden-blond hair which all were reasons he earned the nickname “The Golden Jet.” In 1966, the left winger was the first to register a 50-goal season, setting the record for most goals (54) and most points (97) during the Original Six era. By his final NHL season, he had scored 50 goals or more an astonishing five times – this was only one time less than all other players in NHL history combined up until that point in time.
Hull’s North American major league professional total of 1,018 goals (NHL and WHA including playoffs) is the third most of all time, although the NHL does not recognize WHA stats. He won the NHL's Most Valuable Player twice and was the NHL's leading point scorer three times and led the Black Hawks to a Stanley Cup in 1961. Hull led the NHL in goals seven times, the second-most of any player in history. After he retired from the NHL he went on to win the WHA championship twice, the MVP once, and was the league leader in goals once.
No. 5 – Maurice Richard
Maurice “Rocket” Richard is one of the forefathers of the NHL. The regular-season goal-scoring trophy is named after Richard because his career encapsulated what it means to have a scorer’s mentality. He was the first to reach 500 career goals.
Richard was a key member of eight Stanley Cup championship teams, including a league-record five straight between 1956-60. The one fact that made it obvious that Richard belonged on this list is that the NHL’s Hall of Fame waived its five-year waiting period for eligibility and inducted Richard in 1961 – the year after he retired.
No. 4 – Mario Lemieux
Mario Lemieux was one of the most talented hockey players of all time. At 6-foot-4, he was big, fast, and agile and often beat defenders with splendid dekes and fakes. He won the Lester B. Pearson Award (Most Outstanding Player voted by the players) four times, the Hart Trophy (regular season MVP) three times, the Art Ross Trophy (points leader) six times, and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP in 1991 and 1992 when he led the Penguins to back-to-back championships.
In 1999 Lemieux bought the Penguins and their affiliated minor league team and then proceeded to come out of retirement and play for them from 2000 to 2006. After the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, Lemieux became the only person to have their name on the Stanley Cup as a player and an owner. Lemieux’s career could have been even better but he never played a full season of games because his career was hampered by an assortment of injuries. Bobby Orr called Lemieux "the most talented player I've ever seen."
No. 3 – Bobby Orr
Bobby Orr is the first of the three NHL GOATs because he is widely regarded as the game’s best defenseman—evidenced by his record-setting eight James Norris Memorial Trophy (best defenseman) wins (1968–75). When Orr was on the ice, he was like a Bugatti on a highway filled with mini-vans. As one of the fastest skaters ever, Orr used his speed, scoring, and play-making abilities to revolutionize the position of defenceman.
Orr remains the only defenseman to have won the league scoring title and he did it twice. He still holds the record for most points and assists in a single season by a defenseman. Orr also won three consecutive Hart Trophies (MVP) and led the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals three times, winning it in 1970 and 1972. In both victories, Orr scored the clinching goal and was named the playoff MVP. Orr inspired the game of hockey with his dominant two-way game. Orr's offensive style has influenced countless defensemen who followed.
No. 2 – Gordie Howe
Many consider Gordie Howe to be the most complete hockey player. The late Detroit Red Wings general manager Jack Adams liked to refer to Howe as the “Babe Ruth of hockey.” Nicknamed “Mr. Hockey” Howe played 32 professional seasons – 26 in the NHL, and six in the WHA. With the Red Wings, he won the Stanley Cup four times and took home six Hart Trophies (MVP). He is the only player to have competed in the NHL in five different decades (1940s through 1980s)
Mr. Hockey became the namesake of the "Gordie Howe hat trick" – a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game. A 23-time NHL All-Star, Howe still holds the NHL record for seasons played, and his all-time NHL games played record of 1,767 was surpassed in 2021 by Patrick Marleau. At his retirement, his 801 goals, 1,049 assists, and 1,850 total points were all NHL records that stood until they were broken by “The Great One.”
No. 1 – Wayne Gretzky
With his finesse and unbelievable hockey IQ, “The Great One” revolutionized the game. The NHL record books should be renamed “Gretzky’s Almanac.” At the time of his retirement in 1999, he held 61 NHL records many of which were so far above the second-place person it's mind-boggling. For example, Gretzky totaled 1,963 assists over his 21 years which is more total points than any other player ever. If Gretzky, a man remembered for his scoring, never scored a goal, he still would’ve recorded 11 straight 100-point seasons, and won four scoring titles, and would be the career leader in points scored.
Gretzky is the only player to go above 200 points in a season and he did it four times (Mario Lemieux is the only other player to register 160 points in a season). He also earned four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and was named the NHL’s MVP a record nine times. Gretzky won eight consecutive MVPs at one point. In the NHL, NBA, NFL, and MLB, no other player has won more than four consecutive MVPs.
Many people want to tear down Gretzky and blame the era he was playing in for his numbers, but no matter how you look at it there has never been a more dominant hockey player.
Unlike most other guys on this list, he did not dominate with his size or speed, but instead, he was a master of anticipation and being in the right spot at the right time. Gretzky was the epitome of “work smarter, not harder.” Gretzky is the most statistically dominant player in all of professional sports history.