Who is the greatest NHL player of all time?
Easy, right? Wayne Gretzky.
Who else but the player who, over a 20-year NHL career, scored the most goals, assists and points in league history? At the time Gretzky retired, he held 61 NHL records, most of which still stand today.
Gretzky’s place at the top of the charts hardly seems debatable, so we won’t discuss it. Instead, it is the other 99 places that follow No. 99 that we have to fix.
Welcome to NHL99, a project that aims to put a new spin on a familiar idea: Who are the 100 best players in post-1967 NHL expansion history? Let’s face it, there have been several previous attempts to name the best players of all time, so that’s our starting point and the primary tweak.
We didn’t want to go over the same old ground again. Instead, we wanted to try something new, and the post-1967 NHL seemed like a good starting point. Why? Because that was when the game and the business of hockey fundamentally changed. Instead of six teams, there were suddenly 12. Instead of a league dominated almost entirely by Canadians, a stream and eventually a stream of players arrived from all corners of the world.
Today the countdown begins. We’re calling it NHL99 because there are 99 spots up for debate on our Top 100 list, and the number 99 resonates with hockey fans everywhere.
So, spoiler alert, Wayne Gretzky is #1 on our list. One could argue that Gretzky actually belongs in the Hall of Fame in two categories – as a player and as a builder. No single person probably did more to develop the game of the NHL, on and off the ice, than Gretzky.
But it will be interesting and controversial after Gretzky. Nine authors from Athletics received voices in this project: Eric Duhatschek, Dom Luszczyszyn, Shayna Goldman, Ian Mendes, Scott Wheeler, Sean Gentille, Michael Russo, Sean McIndoe and James Mirtle. Voters each submitted a list of 100 players in the spring of 2022, before the start of the playoffs, and points were awarded based on ranking: 100 points for No. 1 on the list, one point for No. 100, and so on. Gretzky scored a perfect 900 points. At the end of the project, we reveal everyone’s ballots and point totals. If this sounds familiar, it is because Athletics have done similar projects with NBA, NFL and MLB.
With our list of Top 100 sets, the countdown begins now. But this is more than just a countdown. From now until February, we’ll reveal one player a day, six days a week, along with an in-depth feature that’s hopefully full of stories, angles and anecdotes about these players you’ve never read before. More than 40 authors from around the world Athletics newsroom contributed to this project.
Now, a few important caveats about the process, starting with an acknowledgment that any list discussing the greatest of all time will be subjective and may carry some news bias. And again, our focus is solely on the NHL from 1967 to the present.
It should be made very clear because you will not find Gordie Howe on our list. Is it sacrilege to have a list of the greatest players of all time without Mr. Hockey? Maybe, but Howe only played 369 NHL games from 1967-68 and spent six seasons in the WHA. So he’s out. You won’t find Bobby Hull or Maurice Richard or Howie Morenz either.
Our most difficult and complicated picks involved players who spanned the two ends of the spectrum. Some slipped through the cracks because their biggest impact came before 1967. Some who will eventually qualify did not make the list because they are still in the early stages of their careers.
Our threshold was 400 games for skaters (300 for goalies) completed by the end of the 2021-22 regular season, which is the games played criteria to qualify for an NHL pension. So Auston Matthews (407 career games) just barely made it. Cale Makar did not; he has only played 173 regular season NHL games. It’s a hard line to draw, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
The overall goal was simple: To tell 100 compelling stories about 100 impactful NHL players and ultimately perhaps spark a conversation about who could have been on the list and was overlooked.
A word of warning though: if you want to add your favorite player or dispute one of our picks, you’ll also need to remove someone from the list.
Which you’ll discover as the list counts down can be easier said than done.
A quick word about Trophy Points: In each story you will see a graphic with each player’s stats, achievements and votes. In the trophy case you can see “trophy points”.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett, Gregory Shamus, Mike Powell, Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)