These days, it’s fun for you youthful hockey fans to believe Sidney Crosby is the greatest player in NHL history – mere games from becoming the on-ice equal of Number 99.
You will excuse me for a moment, won’t you, while I lose my lunch. The only way “Crosby” and “Gretzky” should be used in the same sentence is if you follow “Crosby” with “is not even close to both the skill and leadership level of.” We’re not going to dissect the stats to death (because Gretzky wins that battle hands-down against, well, everyone). It’s about the players and how they work on the ice.
Sidney Crosby (in 2005) entered the NHL with far more fanfare than Wayne Gretzky did (in 1979). Gretzky had many, many skeptics when he entered the pro game with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. Crosby had no skeptics at all. He was the consensus number one pick when the Pittsburgh Penguins got s**t lucky and won the post-lockout lottery. The Oilers got s**t lucky when they got to keep Gretzky as they entered the NHL.
Sidney Crosby had a far brighter rookie spotlight on him than Gretzky did (I know, Gretzky was never a true NHL rookie). Crosby dominates shifts. Wayne Gretzky dominated games. Sidney Crosby is noticeable a handful of times per period. Wayne Gretzky was noticeable every single time he stepped on the ice. And the reason for that is very simple.
Gretzky was so extraordinary as a player, teams’ entire on-ice strategies changed and evolved when Wayne came over the boards. No opponent ever figured out a way to shut Wayne down. The closest any team ever came was when the Boston Bruins used to employ Steve Kasper as a Gretzky shadow. Teams don’t shadow Sidney Crosby. They don’t need to. He cannot control the play like Wayne Gretzky did. Not even close.
I probably watched Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers play about 600 games in person. When our production crew televised Oilers’ games in the 1980s, we were sometimes entrusted with choosing the game’s Molson Cup Three Stars. More times than I can count we excluded Gretzky because he only had three points. We figured that wasn’t up to his usual standard. The only player we compared Gretzky to…was Gretzky! Don’t tell me Crosby wouldn’t be chosen as a star if he only had two goals and an assist. Crosby’s great…but he ain’t no Gretzky.
A couple caveats. The netminders of Wayne’s era were infinitely inferior to today’s goalies. They were inferior athetically. They were inferior technically. Their equipment was substantially smaller. I firmly believe that, if he played today, Wayne would not score as much because the players are bigger and there would simply be less ice available on which to work his magic. Crosby is much stronger physically than Wayne ever was. Wayne didn’t need to be. For Wayne, it was all about outworking and outthinking the opposition. Gretzky worked harder in practice than most guys today work in games.
Crosby makes his linemates better. Gretzky made his linemates Hall-of-Famers (ref. Jari Kurri). There’s a similarity between Wayne and Sidney. In the early stages of their careers, they both whined and complained to the referees. In Calgary, Flames’ fans chanted “Whiner, Whiner” whenever Wayne started yapping. Unimpressive…so Gretzky stopped doing it, and he became a winner.
Crosby’s next step is to simply play his a** off every shift, and stop the bitch and moan. Crosby may win many more Stanley Cups. He may end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. But he’s never, ever going to be the player Wayne Gretzky was.