Is it Gretzky or Lemieux. Sometimes Orr and Howe enter the discussion. What about Roy, Brodeur or someone else? Still, the general consensus is that it’s a debate between The Great One and The Magnificent One. I started this post with the intention of making a case for Jaromir Jagr. But the more and more I look at it, the more I’m convinced that Mario was that much better.
First, I’d like to throw out the theory that their numbers were really inflated in the high scoring 80’s. Yes, team scoring was much higher then, as well as individual numbers. Had Wayne and Mario come along a decade later their numbers would be smaller. But not by much. The dead puck era pretty much started in 1994-95. That’s the same year that Mario turned 30 years old. Players generally start to decline a lot at age 30. That following season, he had 161 points in 70 games. That alone shows me that he was able to score a ton, despite “diminshed” skills, in a tougher league.
By contrast, Wayne turned 30 in 1991, and he put up 163 points in 78 games. But don’t forget, that’s still a few years before scoring got much much tougher. Mario played a season in his teens, and Wayne played two. I’m leaving that out because of the small sample size. In his 20’s Gretzky scored 2.403 ppg, and Mario had 2.112ppg. Once they hit their 30’s, things went down. Except they went down way faster for Wayne. He dropped to 1.272 ppg, while Mario dropped to 1.62 ppg. Wayne’s best season during the dead puck era was 1995-96 when he scored 102 points. That was also Mario’s best year, except he had 161 points, in 10 less games. Yes, Gretzky was older. But Mario had just missed a season recovering from back injuries and a little thing called cancer.
Let’s say Mario was never injured, and played as many games as Wayne (1487). Considering that he still scored at a very high level in his 30’s, let’s assume that his actual career ppg of 1.883 would have remained unchanged. He would have finished with 2800 points, only 57 behind Gretzky. But given that he was hurt so often, that had to effect his production a bit. Maybe he would have chipped in a few more points here or there. One of the biggest cases in favor of Wayne is his sheer domination of the record books. But if Mario had been healthy, things would have been so close that we would have no choice but to look at other factors.
Hell, getting away from the numbers, Mario just looks better to me. Wayne was very smart, and had great hockey sense. He wasn’t physically gifted, he was just one of the smartest players ever. Mario could physically dominate, in addition to being intelligent. Both could score on anyone, but Mario’s highlights just look cooler. And the fact that he was always hurt, and still came back to score is just incredible. Gretzky was completely healthy through the prime of his career. Lemieux never, every played a full season.
Maybe I’ve swayed you, maybe you’ve always thought this way, or maybe you think all the “what if’s” don’t really matter. Regardless, the fact that that these two competed pretty much at the same time, is a blessing for any hockey fan that was lucky enough to watch them.
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