LOS ANGELES – It was the best barroom debate session in hockey history. Except, instead of your friends and a collection of empty beer bottles, swap in the best 100 NHL players of all-time, as selected by a blue-ribbon panel, and place them on one stage. That’s what Friday night at L.A.’S Microsoft Theater treated us to. We saw Sidney Crosby and Peter Forsberg feet away from each other. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux shared a podium. Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur rubbed shoulders. The 2002 Detroit Red Wings, which will have 10 Hall of Famers once Pavel Datsyuk earns his nod, reunited for a class reunion photo. It was a surreal sight.
The full list of selections, which of course includes some departed greats such as Maurice Richard and Terry Sawchuk, can be found here. We can debate endlessly whether the panel made the right decisions – shouldn’t Evgeni Malkin, Calder winner, Hart Trophy winner, two-time scoring champ, Conn Smythe winner and two-time Stanley Cup champ, have made the list over Mats Sundin, for example? – but to do so would go against the theme of the night. The glass-half-full perspective is we’d never seen so many of the sport’s best-ever players in once place. And never was there a better moment to ask them about the state of today’s game.
It’s been 39 years since Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich last skated in an NHL game. He said Friday some of the people who grew up watching him win Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens tell him today they don’t watch the modern game, as it’s changed too much. That’s not how Mahovlich feels, though. He insists no one can compare the Eddie Shores, Milt Schmidts and Gordie Howes to the stars of today, as each era deserves to be honored in its own right, but that doesn’t make Mahovlich any less a fan of the the NHL in 2016-17.
“I don’t know if I could change it,” said Mahovlich, 79. “There are more players, there are more games. It’s completely changed. Equipment’s much improved. It’s faster. The athletes are better. Conditioning is much better.”
Longtime Leaf defenseman Borje Salming, 65, feels the same. He thinks the sport has reached a pinnacle ever since the obstruction crackdown kicked off the 2005-06 season following the 2004-05 lockout. Joe Sakic, a Hart Trophy and Conn Smythe winner who captained the Colorado Avalanche to two Stanley Cups, has a unique perspective as a retired NHLer who still participates in the modern game as Avs GM. And he wouldn’t fiddle with anything about the sport right now.
“I don’t know what you can do,” said Sakic, 47. “I like the game. To get more goals? It’s going to be hard to do, because the goalies are better, the players are just bigger and stronger and faster, goalies are the same. The game is fast. The games are exciting. The goals might not be coming as much, but I do think in general, and with the parity in the league, the game’s been as good as it’s ever been.”
Not every top-100 selection sees the game as picture perfect, however. Mike Gartner, who ranks seventh in NHL history with 708 goals, recognizes that one too many games is a war of attrition and offered a fascinating theory as to why.
“The one thing I would like to change, you can’t change: I would like to ban coaches from the game,” said Gartner, 57, with a laugh. “The coaches are so good right now and the coaching staffs are so good that the game gets choked out sometimes. Obviously we can’t change that. But I think the game is in good shape right now. I really do. A lot of the things they brought in after the last number of years to open it up have been very positive.”
Not to be outdone Friday was a man forever known for being unorthodox. Dominik Hasek never did anything the way anyone else did, especially when it came to his trademark “floppy” goaltending technique. It helped him win six Vezina Trophies in his career, including five over a six-year stretch, not to mention back to back MVPs in 1996-97 and 1997-98. Naturally, ‘The Dominator,’ 51, had an out-there idea to jumpstart offense.
“I would put the net closer to the boards,” Hasek said. “Just because it brings more goals. You cannot score a goal from behind the net. Only Wayne Gretzky can do it. But there are 800 players who cannot do it. So bring the net two or three feet closer to the back boards. And one more thing: the goalies will hate me for it – but take the cheater from the glove (laughs).”
Friday united almost every living major innovator of the sport. Orr moved the puck like no defenseman before him. Gretzky built his office behind the net. Tony Esposito was one of the first couple goaltenders to use the butterfly technique, and Roy perfected it.
And yet none of these heroes of the game wanted to spend the night looking back at his own accomplishments in self congratulation. That would be un-hockey-like. The sport’s icons, of course, are known for their humility. They spent the night praising Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Carey Price. On a night that looked backward, the legends wanted to look forward. And while the game isn’t perfect, they like what they see.
We spend so much of our breath and keystrokes today dissecting and criticizing the game, finding things wrong with it. But maybe the legends had something to teach us Friday. They see the good in it above all else, and perhaps so should we. Hockey is fun. There’s no better reminder of that than celebrating the best ever to play, the guys who made the game so fun for us.
WHO REMINDS YOU OF YOU?
Most of the retired top 100 players still spend a lot of their time watching and enjoying modern games. Which players remind them the most of themselves?
FRANK MAHOVLICH: “I saw that four-goal game that Auston Matthews got (laughs), and my mind started going to when I got four goals in a game. I did it three or four times. He pulled the puck out, he pulled it back, he flung it forward, and it reminded me of some of the moves I used to have.”
PETER FORSBERG: “I wish I could say Connor McDavid, but he’s better at everything than I was (laughs). He skates faster. He sees the game. But I really enjoy seeing him play. He’s everywhere on the ice, and he’s making his team win. If I could start over I’d like to be like him.”
DOMINIK HASEK: “Don’t ask me this question. Carey Price is a great goalie, but he doesn’t remind me of me. He’s a different style. I am so happy to have played in the ’80s and ’90s when the goalie style was more up and down and poke checking. It seems now, everyone’s sliding. And it’s kind of boring. It doesn’t mean the goalies are worse. They’re better than we are, definitely, but the style is boring for me.”
BORJE SALMING: “It’s pretty hard. I think I played a sort of stupid style, so I don’t think anyone can really be like me (laughs).”
MIKE GARTNER, on who matches his trademark speed: “Connor McDavid. He actually does. I’ve played with him a couple times in a couple charity games the past few years. And I’ve seen a lot of fast guys. There are a lot of fast players. But he’s got another level. The first three or four strides…maybe as fast as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
JOE SAKIC, on who measures up to his famous wrist shot: “We’ve got a lot of guys in today’s game that can shoot the puck. McDavid’s got a quick shot. Alex Ovechkin’s been doing it for years. But you see more and more guys now. We’ve got Nathan MacKinnon who fires a quick, hard wrist shot. It’s almost like everyone in today’s game, they all get it and shoot it quick and shoot it hard. We know the sticks are always getting better, but these guys are stronger now, faster and they use their speed when they shoot the puck. There are a lot more guys who can beat a goalie from the side, and that’s hard to do because the goalies are way better now.”