It’s amazing to think about changes in the game of hockey over the last century.
When the NHL was first formed in 1917, the game barely resembled what we see now. The forward pass wasn’t allowed. Goalies weren’t allowed to leave their feet to make saves. The red line didn’t exist; neither did icing. Even the offside rule wasn’t officially introduced until 1930.
It hasn’t just been rule changes that affected the game. Ever since the beginning, players and coaches have been constantly pushing the envelope, looking for that edge that might separate them from the competition. Often, major rule changes stemmed from players pushing the limits of previous rules.
Sure, you might call that cheating, but I don’t. The game is filled with cheating. Every time a player grabs another’s stick, or hooks him, or punches him while the ref isn’t looking, he’s technically cheating. We shouldn’t punish players for stretching the rules. We should be rewarding them for their ingenuity. As I like to say, if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
As we count down the top 20 hockey players who changed the game, you’ll notice the list is filled with the greatest players of all time. This is no coincidence. A big part of the reason why the best became that way was because they were willing to look at the game a different way. That creativity, combined with ample amounts of skill, are what separated a great player from one of the all time legends.
20. Sergei Priakin
Sergei Priakin is not a name recognized by many NHL fans. He played just 46 games with the Calgary Flames from 1989 to 1991, amassing a whole 11 points.
Priakin is notable for one big reason. He was the first Soviet player to gain permission to play in the NHL, eventually paving the way for other Russian-born superstars to join the best league in the world. Of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union helped a bit in that as well.
The Flames successfully pried Priakin from the Soviets after drafting him with the 252nd pick in the 1988 entry draft. After splitting time with the Flames and their IHL affiliate in Salt Lake City, he eventually finished his career playing in Finland and then Japan.
19. Eric Lindros
In terms of pure hockey skill, Eric Lindros was one of the best players in NHL history. When he wasn’t hurt, he could do it all — score, be a playmaker, and play physically. It’s a true shame he was slowed down so badly by concussions.
Lindros changed the game in a different way off the ice. He’s most famous for refusing to sign after being drafted by the Quebec Nordiques 1st overall in 1991. The Nordiques later traded him for a package which included Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Mike Ricci, two first round draft picks, and $15 million in cash.
Dozens of players had held out by that point, but none were as high profile as Lindros’s refusal to play. The NHL took notice. It took them a while, but the league finally ended the loophole which allowed players to hold out in 2005. These days, whenever you hear of a player holding out, it means he’s a restricted free agent who doesn’t have a contract. There’s a big difference between the two.
18. Matt Cooke
Matt Cooke seems to have mellowed out over the years. After playing an extremely physical game through the first few years of his career, he’s only been suspended once in the past three seasons.
Cooke is best known for the huge hit that ended Marc Savard’s career in 2010. Cooke caught Savard with his head down, leaving his feet as he targeted the superstar’s head with a huge check. The NHL didn’t suspend Cooke for the play because the hit was legal.
But as a result of Cooke’s play, the NHL instituted a new rule making blindside hits to the head illegal. The new rule doesn’t appear to be very successful in cutting back on head injuries — concussions are still rampant in the NHL — and has significantly cut back on the number of huge hits fans get to see.
17. Manon Rheaume
These days, Manon Rheaume is pretty much only remembered as the answer to a trivia question. But her contribution to growing women’s hockey can’t be understated.
In an attempt to generate buzz around their new franchise in a traditionally non-hockey market, the Tampa Bay Lightning brought in Rheaume to play in exhibition games during the 1992 and 1993 preseasons. She remains the only woman to ever appear in an NHL game.
Rheaume was one of the trailblazers for women’s hockey, eventually suiting up for the 1998 women’s Olympic team, backstopping Canada to a silver medal. The attention she brought women’s hockey was a big step in legitimizing the game in the eyes of many fans.
16. Borje Salming
Up until the 1970s, the NHL exclusively employed players from North America. Players in the USSR stayed at home, and the rest of Europe wasn’t producing players who were physical enough for the NHL game. At least, that’s what scouts believed.
Several things changed that. The 1972 Summit Series showed the Soviets could really play. And the rival World Hockey Association started poaching some of the NHL’s best players in the early 1970s. That, plus expansion, really watered down the league’s talent pool.
Although Borje Salming wasn’t the first European-born NHL player — that honor goes to a Swede named Ulf Sterner — he was the first player from across the pond to make a real impact. He played 17 seasons in the NHL, amassing 768 points in 1099 career games, mostly with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
15. Ted Lindsay
Ted Lindsay was a Hall of Fame inductee for his performance on the ice. Playing most of his career alongside Gordie Howe, Lindsay amassed 728 points in 862 career games in a career spanning 17 seasons for the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks between 1944 and 1965.
Lindsay’s biggest contribution probably came off the ice. He was instrumental in organizing the NHL’s first player union after attending an event with football and baseball players who were treated comparatively much better by their owners than NHL stars.
Lindsay’s attempts to organize the player’s union eventually failed in 1958, and as a response the Red Wings traded him to the struggling Chicago Blackhawks. Lindsay’s efforts did ultimately prove successful, with players formally forming a union in 1967.
14. Bill Masterton
To be honest, Bill Masterton wasn’t much of a hockey player. He was a career minor leaguer before getting a chance to play with the Minnesota North Stars in their debut season in 1967-68. If it wasn’t for the NHL expanding that year, Masterton would likely have never seen time in the league.
During a game against the Oakland Seals on January 13th, 1968, Masterton was hit hard by two Seals’ defenders. The resulting collision sent him flying, ending with him smashing his head on the ice. Like most players at the time, he wasn’t wearing a helmet. He died the next day from the head injury.
Masterton’s death started a debate about safety in the game. Although it would take until 1979 for the league to finally force all players entering the league from that point forward to wear a helmet, Masterton’s death did motivate many top players to start wearing helmets and to start taking protection seriously.
13. Art Ross
Art Ross was never an influential NHL player. He suited up for just 3 games for the Montreal Wanderers in the 1917-18 season, although he did have a successful amateur career.
When the Boston Bruins were formed for the 1924-25 season, Ross was named as the team’s first head coach. He pioneered such advances in the game such as a focus on physical fitness, and actually came up with the Boston Bruins name. He served as the team’s coach until 1934 and was the general manager until 1954.
Ross also invented removing the goalie for an extra attacker, pulling goaltender Tiny Thompson for an extra forward while down 1-0 to the Montreal Canadiens in a playoff game. It quickly caught on and became a widespread practice.
12. Paul Henderson
Most fans don’t remember just how close the Soviets came to beating Canada in the 1972 Summit Series. Canada was down three games to one (with one tie) after game five of the eight game series. And Canada trailed 5-3 after two periods of game eight.
Paul Henderson changed that. After Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer scored to tie the game at five, Henderson famously deposited Phil Esposito’s rebound in the net with 34 seconds left, cementing Canada’s reputation as the greatest hockey nation in the world.
11. Jacques Lemaire
Like Art Ross, Jacques Lemaire isn’t on this list because of his playing career. Although Lemaire did have successful career as a center for the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s, his biggest contribution to the game came as a coach of the New Jersey Devils.
He popularized a defensive-minded form of play called the neutral zone trap, using it successfully with the Devils to win the Stanley Cup in 1995. Within a few years, just about every coach in the NHL was using the system, which caused league-wide scoring to plummet. Only rule changes instituted after the 2004-05 lockout helped to loosen the trap’s style of play.
10. Stan Mikita
Stan Mikita might have been the best NHL player during the 1960s. During the peak of his 22-year NHL career — which spanned from 1958 to 1980 — Mikita won four Art Ross Trophies in five years, losing out to teammate Bobby Hull during the 1965-66 season. He ended up amassing 1467 points in 1394 games, which currently puts him at 14th all-time in NHL scoring.
One of the reasons why Mikita was so good is because he’s thought to be the first player to play with a curved stick. Mikita’s shots were extremely unpredictable because of his huge curve, which eventually led to the league putting limits on curves after they were heavily adopted by other players.
9. Bobby Hull
Bobby Hull was one of the NHL’s great scorers in the 1960s. He became the first player to score more than 50 goals in a season in 1965-66, eventually ending up with 54 goals on his way to the Art Ross Trophy. Hull eventually amassed 1153 points in 1036 NHL games.
But perhaps Hull’s biggest contribution to the game came when he signed a massive $1.75 million dollar contract with the Winnipeg Jets of the new World Hockey Association. He also received a $1 million dollar signing bonus.
Hull’s contract not only legitimized the new WHA, but it also helped to usher in much higher salaries in the NHL.
8. Maurice Richard
Maurice “Rocket” Richard was one of the NHL’s most electrifying players in the 1940s and ’50s, leading the Montreal Canadiens to eight Stanley Cup championships between 1942 and 1960. He was also the first player to score 50 goals in 50 games.
Like many others on this list, Richard’s influence was huge off the ice as well. Richard regularly accused NHL president Clarence Campbell of treating English Canadian players better than French Canadians. These feelings of resentment culminated with a riot after Richard was suspended for the rest of the 1955 season for hitting a linesman.
Historians actually point to the Richard Riots as a turning point in Quebec history. Quebecers rioting over the perceived slight of a French icon like Richard is viewed as one of the things that led to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.
7. Vladislav Tretiak
When Canadian scouts watched Vladislav Tretiak play an exhibition game in Switzerland before the 1972 Summit Series, they dismissed him as terrible after he let in eight goals.
It turns out Tretiak was just hungover after getting married the night before. He put on a goaltending clinic against Canada, almost leading his team to victory against the favored Canadian squad. He became the USSR’s most famous player after the Series.
One of the reasons why Tretiak was so successful was because he was ahead of his time. During an era where most goalies stayed on their feet, Tretiak pioneered the butterfly style of play that’s become the norm in today’s game.
6. Howie Morenz
Howie Morenz was one of hockey’s first superstars, helping the fledgling NHL to gain its footing in the 1920s.
It was because of Morenz and his end-to-end rushes that the NHL made rule changes. During his peak, players weren’t allowed to pass the puck forward. So Morenz would take the puck and skate with it, using his speed to avoid opposing defensemen. He was easily the best player of his generation.
Tragically, Morenz died at the age of 34 from complications after breaking his leg on the ice.
5. Gordie Howe
Gordie Howe was a remarkable player in a few different ways.
We all know about his offensive prowess. He ended up winning six Art Ross Trophies, six Hart Trophies, and amassed 1850 points as a member of the Detroit Red Wings and Hartford Whalers in a 26-year NHL career. Howe also played six seasons in the World Hockey Association, amassing 399 points from the age of 45 to 50.
It’s Howe’s longevity that’s really impressive. Howe played in the NHL as a 52-year old in 1979-80, wanting to play with his sons Mark and Marty. The elder Howe managed a respectable 41 points in 80 games that season, a feat that will likely never be repeated in today’s NHL.
4. Mario Lemieux
Mario Lemieux ended up playing parts of 17 seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins, accumulating 1723 points in just 915 games. He ended up with six Art Ross Trophies, three Hart Trophies, and two Stanley Cups. He accomplished all of that even though his peak years came at the same time as Wayne Gretzky.
Imagine how much better Lemieux’s career would have been if he could stay healthy? Lemieux averaged just 53 games per season during his career, falling victim to a dazzling array of injuries which even included cancer.
When Lemieux came back after his first retirement in 2001, his performance was for the ages. He put up 76 points in just 43 games, all during a period when the top scoring team in the league only averaged 3.6 goals per game. That’s about as good as seasons get.
3. Jacques Plante
After his nose was broken by an Andy Bathgate slapshot during a game on November 1, 1959, Plante refused to come back into the game after getting stitched up unless head coach Toe Blake would let him wear a goalie mask. Blake was livid — he thought the mask made Plante a wuss — but without a backup goaltender, he had no choice. Plante donned the mask and went on win the next 18 games.
Plante also was one of the first goaltenders to skate behind the net to stop the puck, and is also credited with being the first goaltender to raise an arm to let his defensemen know an icing call was upcoming.
2. Bobby Orr
Bobby Orr completely revolutionized the role of an offensive defenseman in the NHL. He is perhaps the most complete player in NHL history, combining offensive skill with defensive prowess. No player before or after Orr has been able to play so well on both sides of the puck.
Orr could do it all. Even after being slowed by multiple knee injuries he was one of the fastest skaters in the league. He also had a cannon of a shot and passing abilities only surpassed by players like Lemieux and Gretzky.
In just 12 seasons — including three that only saw him play a combined 36 games — Orr put up 888 points in just 631 games. His finest season was 1970-71, when he accumulated 139 points along with a plus/minus of 124. That remains the best plus/minus season in NHL history.
1. Wayne Gretzky
Even a full 16 years after he hung up the blades for good, Wayne Gretzky is still the face of the NHL. Unless the game changes in a drastic way, he will be the greatest offensive player of all time.
Gretzky saw the game in a way nobody has ever been able to repeat. Because he played his whole junior career against players bigger than him, he used anticipation and understanding the play better than anyone. His hockey brain became his biggest tool. Bigger players could fall back on their physical attributes. Gretzky couldn’t dream of using strength to get ahead.
Gretzky’s famous line is to “skate where the puck is going to be.” Thousands of people have quoted that line since, but only Gretzky truly understood it.
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