With roots stretching back over a century, hockey has seen quite a number of changes. There is a vocal faction calling for today's NHL to reduce the players per side to four-on-four (not counting goalies of course). It seems blasphemous to even suggest such a drastic change, but it's not the first time a reduction took place. Hockey was once played with a sixth skater on each side, called the "rover". Perhaps the most famous rover was Howie Morenz, an incredibly exciting player who made his living dashing end to end. In Morenz's time they played rugby style with no forward pass! When the league finally changed the rule, goal totals doubled, and hockey began to take the shape that we see today.
The goaltenders have seen the most drastic changes of all. It's hard to imagine they once played without a mask. It would take a special kind of crazy to put your face and nerves on the line every single game in a time without backup goaltenders. Hockey, like baseball has seen a consistent seesaw between goalies/pitchers and shooters/batters. Before the forward pass and at a time when shooters wouldn't raise the puck off the ice, goaltenders had the obvious advantage. By the time Gretzky and his 80's Oilers perfected the fast flowing offense, the stand-up goaltending style seemed woefully outgunned. Watching a shooter rip a slapper from the corner and a goaltender feebly attempt to make a standing kick save looks downright bizarre compared to the highly scientific goaltending of today.
Led by Dominik Hasek, goaltenders and their defensemen of the late 90's, the early 2000's were bulky and able to clutch-and-grab their way to absolute dominance during the dead-puck era. It took a complete lockout and a reset of the rules to bring flow back into the game.
Many of the changes that we take for granted today were brought about by revolutionary players. Players that were incredibly gutsy like Jacques Plante or Ted Lindsay, who withstood the pressures of their time to better the lives of their peers. And others like Wayne Gretzky who changed the game based on unrivaled skill and success. Hockey is a historic game yet is always changing. Even in the past five years we have seen a move away from an "enforcer" fourth line to a league that demands adequate skating and skill up and down the lineup.
The NHL will continue to change, and there will continue to be players that change it for them. For now we honor the 20 that have had the greatest impact on the coolest game on earth.
20 Stan Mikita
During Mikita’s first four seasons in the league he was an extremely talented center with a feisty side. He racked up 100 PIMs in each of those years. However, after his confused daughter asked “why is daddy always sitting down?" he vowed to change his ways. Mikita cleaned up his game while maintaining his torrid scoring pace. He would shock the league by winning the not only the Art Ross and Hart, but the Lady Byng as well. Mikita is still the only player in NHL history (not even Gretzky) to accomplish this, and he did it twice.
Mikita was involved in other revolutionary changes as well. Though NHLers Andy Bathgate and others have claimed they did it first, Mikita is widely recognized as the NHLer who popularized the curved blade.
He and Bobby Hull were shooting pucks after practice when the blade broke, producing a curve. He snapped his next shot off to realize just how effective a curved blade was. They soon used their curves in a game and combined with Hull’s scary shot, they changed hockey forever.
Mikita’s effect on equipment doesn’t end there. After suffering a concussion he decided to design his own helmet to further protect his noggin. This caught on and soon many players were sporting the “Mikita” on their heads as well.
19 Chris Chelios
Trevor Linden had a quote that always stuck with me. Upon his retirement from the NHL, he said he went from being very old, to very young. Anyone over 35 in the NHL is “old” and only the very best can maintain high levels of play as they near their 40’s. For this reason, Chelios is a genetic freak.
Throughout his career he was always known for his toughness, leadership, and skill. But as he continued to play into his 40’s, his legend grew into something far greater.
Gordie Howe’s record of 26 NHL seasons seemed untouchable, but Chelios matched it (even with a lockout stealing one in the process). The next closest to their record is another Red Wing, Nicklas Lidstrom with 20. Chelios does stand alone however with his 24 playoff seasons, a remarkable testament to what Chelios can bring to a team.
He would have been in the Hall of Fame even if he stopped playing at 36, but he persevered to create a new standard in the modern era, and for that, he is easily a revolutionary.
18 Martin Brodeur
When Martin Brodeur hit the 300, 400, and 500 win marks, he was the youngest goaltender to ever do so. He would use this pace to eventually smash Patrick Roy’s record for regular-season wins of 551, eventually retiring with a whopping 691, a mark that seems impossible to touch.
Brodeur didn’t just win in the regular season. Along the way he turned New Jersey from a “Mickey Mouse organization” (as Gretzky called it) into an NHL powerhouse. He competed in 17 postseasons, winning the Cup three times. Brodeur also win two Olympic Gold medals in 2002, and 2010.
Although he couldn’t crack the 700 win mark with his late bid in St. Louis, Brodeur should sit comfortably at the top of the heap for many years to come.
17 Alexander Mogilny
A man of firsts. He was the first ever Soviet to defect to the NHL, sneaking away from the Russian team during a tournament in Sweden (overcoming his fear of flying at the same time). Because of his defection and position within the Soviet Army, there was a serious warrant out for his arrest for years afterwards.
After acclimating to the NHL and receiving new linemate Pat Lafontaine, Mogilny took off. The pair's give-and-go style was mesmerizing, culminating with Mogilny’s 76 goals in just 77 games. He did actually score 50 goals in 50 games that year but it was uncredited as they were not his team's first 50 games.
During a Lafontaine injury, Mogilny accomplished another first. He became the first European captain in NHL history.
During his time with the Leafs, he also made his mark Toronto hockey. The legendary Mats Sundin led the Leafs in scoring in all but one of his seasons with the club. That one aberration came in 2002-03, when Mogilny became the first Leaf to out-score the Swedish captain.
Mogilny had a unique perspective and humour throughout his NHL career. The easy going “Almo” even forgot to retire. When NHL journalist Pierre Lebrun reminded him of that, Mogilny responded with “No, why, do I have to? What if I want to come back when I’m 50?”
16 Dominik Hasek
He was constantly criticized for his unorthodox style. Detractors claimed that shooters would eventually learn to outwait the “flopping” style, but they never did. The best way to shut critics up is with results, and that’s exactly what Hasek delivered. Arguably one of the greatest goaltenders of all time, he rightfully earned the name “Dominator”.
While Hasek left behind some staggering numbers, he did admittedly play in a very low-scoring era of the NHL. The numbers are impressive of course, but what he did better than anyone was give his team a chance to win. He remains the only goaltender to win two Hart trophies as MVP to his team. Perhaps best symbolized in a 1994 game against rival legend Martin Brodeur (good luck scoring in that game). Hasek took the game to quadruple-overtime yet would not let in a goal, stopping 70 shots!
Hasek was a global goaltender. He sent shockwaves through Canada in the Nagano Olympics of 1998 when he took down the mighty hockey nation in a crushing defeat that will never be forgotten. He was the first European goaltender to lead the NHL in GAA as well as the first Euro to win a Stanley Cup. He would continue his high level of play, becoming the oldest NHL goaltender to play since Jacques Plante in 1973.
If I could pick one player to build my team around and Orr was taken, Hasek is my guy.
15 Glen Hall
Hall won three Vezinas and a Calder trophy, but his greatest contribution to goaltending has to be his pioneering of the butterfly style that has dominated modern hockey.
Hall came from a much tougher era for goaltending. He played 70 games a year seven seasons in a row, all without a mask. He holds the record for most consecutive games started by a goaltender with 502, a record that will never be broken.
Hall won the Calder trophy, played in 13 All-Star games, won two Stanley Cups and the Conn Smythe in 1968. He was #16 on The Hockey News’ 100 greatest Hockey Players and is absolutely deserving of his place on our list.
14 Ted Lindsay
A tough man from a tough era of hockey. This was a time when players led entirely different lives than the superstars of today. Lindsay was a courageous pioneer. He was the first to attempt a Union and suffered the wrath of the powerful NHL owners for his efforts. Remember this is a period when players would work a summer job just to make ends meet. The Union was initally unsuccessful, with the owners successfully intimidating many NHLers, including the influential Gordie Howe. Detroit management did everything they could to hurt Lindsay, as he recalled “a series of rumours about my attitude, as well as derogatory remarks about myself and my family showed me that the personal resentment of the Detroit general manager toward me would it impossible for me to continue playing hockey in Detroit”. Lindsay was banished to Chicago for several years before his retirement.
Remarkably, Lindsay came out of retirement four years later to reconcile with the Red Wings, leading them to the top of the league for the first time in years.
The NHLPA would eventually be successful in it’s formation 10 years later, with Alan Eagleson at the helm.
Every NHL player today should thank Lindsay for his brave contribution to the life-changing salaries they enjoy.
13 Vladislav Tretiak
We're making one exception on this list, as Tretiak didn't play in the NHL, but he was a pioneer for the game (and indirectly for the NHL).
Before the Summit Series of 1972, Canadian scouts witnessed the great Tretiak play just one game. They happened to pick the very worst game to view, as he was nursing a hangover and was in no shape to play. He let in eight goals, prompting the Canadians to assume an easy victory. Dominance was so assumed that Canadian goaltending legend Jacques Plante even coached Tretiak on how to face Canadian shooters.
Tretiak did let in two quick goals in his first game on Canadian soil, but would then shut the door, providing outstanding goaltending that stunned a nation. Canada, so sure of its dominance in hockey was fearing the embarrassment of losing to this foreign nation. Tretiak forever changed the way Canadians viewed European hockey. This was the first step towards the NHL becoming a place where the best in the world now play.
Tretiak would be drafted by the Canadiens later in his career, but unfortunately the Soviet Union blocked his departure, denying him the chance to make his mark on the NHL. While it would have been wonderful to see him in the NHL, he only needed one series to impact hockey and its place in the world.
12 Jacques Lemaire
Lemaire's introduction of the dreaded "trap" is a controversial entry in hockey history. He gained notoriety when his underdog New Jersey Devils upset the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in a stunning four-game sweep. The loose, fire wagon hockey of the late 80's and early 90's had met its match. Lemaire's highly effective style would spark the change towards today's system-dominated play.
Lemaire proved it was no fluke when he took over the reigns of expansion Minnesota. His Wild squad resembled the plucky Devils of before. They embraced their lack of star-power, introducing a rotating captaincy to their suffocating defensive system, squeezing out our more wins than their roster would have suggested.
Watching games from the 80's and early 90's shows a shocking difference in play. The free flowing, end-to-end hockey was made possible due to the mistakes players were allowed to make. Odd-man rushes were accepted, and the best defense was almost always a better offense. Contrast that to today's game where turnovers and mistakes are fodder for the next video session and a reason for benching. Many argue that the game is now over-coached, as fans have always been more entertained by players than systems.
Lemaire only wanted to win, but even he could not have predicted how those wins would affect the NHL for decades to come.
11 Bobby Hull
A true superstar, with good looks, exciting play, and the talent to back it all up. The Golden Jet won a variety of gold: two Harts, an Art Ross, and a Stanley Cup in 1961. But his biggest contribution to the game was the way he scored goals. Combining the new idea of curved blades with his terrifying cannon of a shot, he became the first player to break the 50 goal mark set by Maurice Richard. He would break that 50 goal mark three times in the NHL and three more in the rival WHA.
Hull was also known as a player brave enough to speak out. When the NHL threatened to ban the curved blades that Hull popularized, he threatened to sit out the playoffs if it passed. But Hull was not done shaking up the hockey world at that point.
The upstart WHA had gotten further than any other league in challenging the NHL, and made the ultimate coup when they signed Hull for an unprecedented $1 million signing bonus (in case they folded) and another $4 million over the next four years. His defection was the catalyst the WHA needed to truly compete. Hull and the WHA in effect, created free agency, a concept that greatly benefits the NHL players of today.
10 Phil Esposito
Most thought it impossible to score 50 goals in a season until Richard did it in 1945. They must have thought it impossible to break as it held for 20 more years after. Bobby Hull finally cracked it with 54 (in 15 more games than Richard mind you). That record seemed just as unbeatable but took much less time to break. In 1970, Esposito would not only surpass it, but smash it to pieces with 76! Esposito, perhaps the first true power forward, scored at least 40 for seven consecutive seasons. He occupied fifth all time with 717 until the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr recently passed him this season.
Esposito was not just a goal scorer, but a tremendous physical presence and leader. At the historic 1972 Summit Series, he was named one of four co-captains and led the team in points. Esposito gave an impromptu speech on Canadian television after being booed by the Canadian fans after a loss to the Russians. This was seen as a rallying point for the nation.
Although everyone remembers Henderson’s goal, Esposito had four points in the final game, participating in all three in the final period. He was described as an unstoppable force that delivered while carrying the pressure and weight of an entire nation.
When you see a hulking forward score a goal from two feet out, or a captain rally his team when they need it the most, you can’t help but think of big Phil.
9 Borje Salming
The NHL’s first European superstar. Salming brought the European emphasis on skill to the much rougher 1970’s NHL. Salming’s talent and production helped dispel ignorant and negative stereotypes towards Europeans, breaking down the barriers for a wave of talent to cross the Atlantic. To look at a modern NHL roster and see players from so many countries working together for a common goal speaks to the legacy of Salming.
Salming's achievements were rightly recognized when he became the first Swede and European-trained player to make the NHL’s Hall of Fame. He will also be honored with a statue in Toronto, as a part of their Leafs Legends Row this year. Finally, something to look forward to as a Leafs fan!
8 Denis Potvin
Potvin was an unstoppable force that created the mould for the ideal defenseman today. He was dominant at both ends of the ice, an intimidating hitter and a fearless leader.
Tabbed as the next Bobby Orr, Potvin would go on to break many of his records (becoming the first defenseman to score 1,000 points). But beyond mere production, he was the backbone and driving force of the last great dynasty. He would captain the dominant New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cups in the 80's. Nowadays if a team could win four in 10 years we would call them a dynasty.
Potvin was very outspoken as well. He would criticize the media for heaping praise on Orr while ignoring his equally stellar play. He then shocked the NHL when he retired early, claiming he had "nothing left to prove."
Potvin dominated like few have. His package of skills and leadership is still the gold standard for all defensemen today.
7 Mario Lemieux
Known as the most skilled player to ever play the game, Lemieux's injury troubles limited what could have been an even more impressive career.
Before he ever touched NHL ice he was famous. His destruction of the junior record books led to great anticipation of which team would be lucky enough to draft him. Lemieux would not disappoint. In his first shift, he stole the puck from one of the greatest defenders in NHL history (Ray Bourque) and promptly scored a goal. He would continue his marvelous rookie season, scoring the first 100 of his eventual 1,723 career points. Lemieux's star power would extend beyond the ice to resurrect the poor Penguins franchise, as they suddenly became the hottest ticket in the NHL.
Lemieux is the owner of the greatest comeback story in NHL history. In the 1992-93 season he was on pace for 216 points before he was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. He would miss over 20 games before his return and the start of arguably the greatest offensive run ever seen in hockey. Twelve points back of scoring leader Pat LaFontaine, Lemiuex posted a scorching 30 goals and 26 assists in 20 games to finish with 160 points in only 60 games, taking home the Art Ross.
Lemieux would actually top that comeback in 2000, when he returned as a 35-year-old after three years retired. His second debut echoed his first, making an immediate impact in his first game. Lemieux would defy all the odds, battling through injuries again to maintain his incredible high level of play at an advanced age. His comeback would culminate at the 2002 Olympics. Lemieux (on basically one leg) would lead Canada to its first Gold Medal in Men's Hockey since 1952.
Lemieux's legacy of the most purely talented player to ever play the game is only half the story. His unbreakable will to face seemingly impossible circumstances is an inspiration to anyone inside or outside of hockey.
6 Gordie Howe
Number one on Bobby Orr's list, Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe. Howe was the most fearsome combination of skill and toughness that hockey has ever seen. Coaches praised his intelligent play, teammates loved his ability to pass and score, and the opposition feared his relentless attack. His "windshield wiper elbows" would clear a path for his fearless drive to the net. Howe was known for holding grudges on the ice. Opposing players would hesitate to play rough with Howe as they knew retribution would always come. His punishing style of play should have shortened his career, but Howe would go on to leave arguably the most impressive NHL legacy of all time.
Howe would play a truly unbelievable 32 years of professional hockey. He was no slouch either, scoring at least 20 goals for 27 consecutive seasons. He recorded 100 points three times in his 40's, and even played one more season in the NHL as a 50-year-old, notching a respectable 41 points in 80 games. He appeared in five decades of NHL hockey, and played on a line with his own sons.
Gretzky and Messier may have more points, but no one means more to hockey than the man they call Mister.
5 Howie Morenz
The first true superstar of the NHL, Morenz excited fans like no other with his unmatched blend of speed, power, and skill. Playing in a time where the forward pass was illegal, he performed many magnificent end-to-end rushes, lifting fans from their seats. Morenz was not only the fastest and strongest, he could play defense as well. He was the first to truly transcend the sport, earning his nickname "the Babe Ruth of hockey".
Morenz is sometimes overlooked due to how long ago he played the game. But if you could imagine a combination of Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, and Jonathan Toews, you could start to come close to the impact of the great Morenz.
4 Maurice Richard
Maurice Richard rocketed out of the gate in his first full NHL season. He scored 32 goals in only 46 games, and then 12 more in just nine postseason matches en route to a Stanley Cup. He would create history the next season when he potted 50 goals in the 50-game NHL season. This accomplishment would remain unmatched for a lengthy 35 years, when Mike Bossy (a player Richard recommended to draft) proved it could finally be done again.
A scoring machine, Richard would also set the record for most points in a game with eight. This would remain unbeaten for 32 years until Darryl Sittler had 10 in 1976. Richard carried on scoring as he became the first NHLer to hit the 500 goal mark. Fueled by his goals and leadership, his Montreal Canadiens won eight Stanley Cups, including a record five in a row.
Richard was known as much for his scoring ability as his fiery temper and tough-as-nails demeanor. In the ‘52 playoffs, he was knocked unconscious, yet returned to the ice dazed to score the game winning goal.
Richard played the game with a fiery passion that has burned him a nice sized hole in hockey history. Richard will be remembered as the first goal scorer to achieve the impossible.
3 Jacques Plante
As each year passes it becomes more difficult to imagine playing goal without a mask. Yet for decades that was the case. Because of tradition and social pressure to not appear cowardly, goaltenders regularly put up with pucks and sticks to the face. Plante had worn a mask during practice because of asthma, but had never been permitted to wear one during an actual game. After yet another shot was blocked with his face, requiring stitches, he returned to the ice wearing the mask. The tough goalies of the time were also without backup goaltenders, which forced the hand of his coach, who gave in to Plante's demands. Plante would continue to wear the mask even after his cuts healed, and because of an 18-game unbeaten streak, he won the argument.
But it wasn't just the mask that he pioneered. Plante pioneered so many of the techniques that we take for granted today. He was the first to go behind the net and stop a puck for his defensemen, the first to raise his hand for an icing call, and the first to master positional play, using angles to his advantage.
The goaltenders of today owe so much to the brave and intelligent Jacques Plante.
2 Bobby Orr
Perhaps no one changed the game like he did. Orr looked like he stepped out of a time machine when he played. His skating ability and vision were so far advanced he could skate around an entire team and score almost at will. He was able to score so much from the back end he became the first (and only) defenseman in league history to lead the league in points (twice).
The revolutionary way Orr played the game rocked the league from the moment he hit the ice and still shows his influence today. As the game continues to get faster, every team clamors for a puck-moving defenseman in the vein of Orr. You could make a case that the most important ingredient for a Stanley Cup winner in the past 10 years has been a dominant two-way d-man. Doughty, Keith, Chara, Lidstrom, Niedermayer, and Pronger arguably influenced their team more than any other player.
Like so many hockey players, Orr had his share (and more) of injuries. His infamous knee limited his career, forcing his retirement at the tender age of 30. Like Lemiuex after him, it drives statisticians mad thinking of what he could have accomplished with a few more productive years.
His impact on the way his position was played and the incredible dominance he showed makes Orr a true revolutionary.
1 Wayne Gretzky
With 61 NHL records and 33 trophies, the Calder Trophy is one of the few accolades missing from his collection. The NHL, (most likely to spite the rival WHA at the time) ruled any of their former players ineligible to win the NHL’s rookie of the year award. A bit ridiculous since Gretzky was 17 in the WHA and still only 18 in his first NHL year. Even more ridiculous when Sergei Makarov won the Calder in 1990 as a 31 year-old! Anyway, the 18-year-old Gretzky stormed the NHL immediately with 51 goals and 137 points! So instead of the Calder, he went ahead and took the Hart Trophy in his first year. This would become a trend as he’d win it the next seven years. Even though he tied Marcel Dionne’s point totals, Gretzky would lose his share of the Art Ross due to scoring two fewer goals. He would have to wait until the following year to begin his streak of seven straight scoring titles.
In 1980-81, Gretzky surpassed Orr’s assist record, and the next year took ownership of the goal record with a mind blowing 92! He popped five goals in his 39th game to hit 50. That season he ended up with 212 points, with three more 200 points seasons to come. He is still the only player to ever break the 200-point barrier.
Gretzky’s vision and revolutionary play made him unstoppable. Behind the net became his “office” and he would incorporate the unexpected late man into the zone off the rush to create scoring opportunities out of thin air.
Off the ice, he had a huge impact as well. Impossible to fathom now, but the Oilers traded him in a mammoth deal involving a large amount of cash. Gretzky would take his show to Hollywood, instantly adding mainstream appeal to the non-traditional hockey market of California. Leading the Kings to a Stanley Cup Final against original six Montreal, Gretzky played a large role in growing the game in the States. Perhaps there would never be teams in places like Arizona, San Jose, and Florida without his star power.
He leaves behind a staggering amount of records, many that will never be broken. He has more career assists than anyone has points, while still scoring the most goals. He has 970 more points than second place (Mark Messier). His 10 Art Ross and nine Harts will likely never be beaten as well.
To top it off, the man is a saint. He took it upon himself to represent hockey and Canada with honour and dignity. Current star Sidney Crosby has obviously modeled his public persona after the Great One.
No other player had a bigger effect on the game. The sheer amount of records he smashed, many that might never be touched, and the influence he had on North America and growing the game is unmatched.
The nickname still fits, he was, is, and always will be, the Great One.