- When Wayne Gretzky is the fouth-best skater on a team, it's easy to give it the nod as one of the best-skating teams on NHL history. The 1987 Edmonton Oilers, filled with players like Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Mark Messier, are that team.
If it’s true that speeds kills, let us still not forget that beauty can be sourced in the carnage that comes from an object moving from Point A to Point B with great rapidity.
Speed, though, in sports, can be misleading. It’s a measurable. We like measurables. Look at all of that NFL draft coverage and the numbers on who runs the fastest 40-yard dash, has the highest vertical leap—metrics that often don’t translate to professional success.
Today’s NHL is a blur of speed, such that a game that is entirely based on the creating or denying of time and space seems to rarely have either. A fast player has the puck for a few seconds, an equally fast player dispossesses him of it, the cycle going on and on.
With the decrease in real estate comes a decrease in creativity, a wellspring of coaches’ system and a game where we almost have too much speed because there’s not enough of a gap between the players at the top end of the spectrum, and those nearer the bottom. Everyone can haul.
Not everyone could thirty years ago in 1987, when we have what might be the best skating team in league history. There were still ponderous defensemen left over from the 1970s and when in doubt—which is to say, when you didn’t possess the requisite speed to slow down an attacker—you could always lay some serious lumber and chop your adversary down with a mighty slash across the gloves. If you were backchecking, you could hook as much as you pleased, so long as you kept your legs moving and didn’t let the forward you were chasing pull you.
The gap between the very fast and the very slow in no way negates what we can still marvel at with that Edmonton Oilers team. Rather, it highlights, in isolation—like a beam of light on a character in a movie freeze-frame—just what blade virtuosos those Oilers were.
Let’s put it this way: the player I’m going to say was the best skater in the world, was the fourth-fastest Oiler. That would be Wayne Gretzky. Paul Coffey, in his final season with the team, is the fastest man I’ve watched, with an ability to glide faster than other NHL players could skate. Bobby Orr’s dad, having seen Coffey in the 1987 Canada Cup, told his son in uncertain enough terms that he was not as fast as the Oilers’ D-man that Orr responded with, “Am I even close?”
Coffey would also take multiple strides consecutively on the same leg as he half-glided, producing a rocking motion that he most commonly deployed coming out of his zone and entering the neutral zone, as he sought to make an outlet pass.
One of these would often go to Mark Messier, the team’s next fastest player. Messier, who would now be under-sized, was huge at the time. He was Eric Lindros before Eric Lindros, but faster, with one of the longest strides you’d ever see.
Any time I’ve played hockey, I’ve been caught up in watching great skaters skate, in much the same way I get caught up reading the turns of phrase in an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. One becomes attuned to subtle touches, qualities that are localized alone in the person creating them; which is to say, they could come from no one else at all.
Great skaters, at all levels, are like great artists that way, and perhaps in no other way at all. But it’s a telling way, one that’s also immensely pleasurable to behold. Messier got maximum efficacy out of that long stride, his blades nearly nicking each other as his left leg drew back under him and his right extended. It wasn’t just the stride that produced the speed, it was that insanely rapid return of an extended skate back below his body, ready to go again and again.
This would all be quite meaningless, or certainly less impactful, if Messier hadn’t been able to conjure up this speed within the first three or four strides he took from a starting position, or build it up as he exploded out of tight radial turns. Anyone can fly—Geoff Courtnall could fly. Bill Guerin could fly. But they weren’t great skaters. The great skaters have a ballerina-like quality to their styles, a sense of ebb and flow as they move, of stopping and starting in a shimmer of rapidly advancing poetry that also happens to have multiple gears.
Messier would also shift into another, as he came down the wing. If you closed in on him as a defenseman at the top of your speed, Messier would simply kick it up a notch. Sometimes he’d make you think there no more notches, you’d angle him for a body check, then boom: mouthful of boards.
This was a favorite technique of Glenn Anderson’s, who was nearly as fast as Mess, but without those same qualities of elegant flow. His stride was short, choppy, powerful, violent, like he wanted to drive his skate straight through the ice and make a divot in the earth.
Anderson’s speed was of the straight-ahead variety. He could make some sudden darting movements of the sort a water bug makes atop the surface of a pond, but any change in direction would lead to a further zig-zag that was every bit as herky-jerky, an animal trying to wrest itself, however violently, from a hand clutching at its back.
And then there is Gretzky. You know what people love to do with Gretzky? They love to say, “He had no physical talents, you know. Average skater, average shot. But he was smart, it was all mental.” They also say this about Larry Bird. And you know what? This is imbecilic. We’ll leave out talk of Gretzky’s slap shot, say, for another day—a shot that was arguably the most effective out of any shot ever by anyone—and dial down on his skating.
When he got the call to suit up for Team Canada for the 1984 Canada Cup, Rick Middleton—hardly a dude with cement in his skates—realized he had to drop a few pounds over the summer to keep up with his new linemate, The Great One. That will tell you something.
You watch Gretzky skate, and you think his back must have always killed him. Of all of the great skaters, no one bent forward like Gretzky. I think it changed his entire perspective on the ice, his skating style informing his perceptions, vantage points, sense of lanes and angles.
In his often-brilliant autobiography My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams writes about entering the big leagues in 1939 and sitting on dugout steps watching the likes of Jimmie Foxx hit. For him, it is akin to reading Keats, savoring the flow of organized movement. He admires swings that have nothing to do with his own, and yet the thought process of appreciating them, of understanding the principles on which they function, provide coloristic aspects to an overall schema of what it means to bring round bat to bear on round ball. It is a tapping into a larger dance that will reflect one’s own individual dance.
Watching Gretzky skate—and treat yourself to some YouTube goodies—operates the same way. He never loses speed—unless he wants to, to throw you off—when changing direction. He is able to slow down without being caught from behind, which seems like some kind of Dr. Who-ish trick.
He never goes in a straight line, and yet manages to get from those aforesaid Points of A and B faster than players who only go straight. He is a passing magician in part because he is a skating magician who can get to spots on the ice such that a passel of players will be arranged in such a way that they create a geometric pattern that Gretzky can exploit with an air-born pass to a lane-filling Jari Kurri. Who, wouldn’t you know, did not have crazy speed.
You want your mind blown? Watch a full-length game from that Oilers era, and watch how Gretzky varies his speed based on who is on the ice to create the patterns of dimensionality he wants.
If the ultimate algorithm to produce scoring success could lace ‘em up and take to the ice, it would skate like Wayne Gretzky did. It’d also be the fourth fastest player on its own team. But, it’s not sped that kills. It’s skating at the level of the poets that does.