"He's once in a generation"
"He's the next one"
"There's nobody like him"
We've heard those quotes in every sport about a lot of players. Sometimes it's right and sometimes it's used way too loosely. The term 'generational player' could also mean different things for different people. Some might use stats or championships in their equation, others like myself measure it based on skill, talent and impact as unless you're talking golf, tennis or martial arts to name a few, bringing in numbers and titles means you're involving the team aspect of sports, which is why I focus on the skill side of things. A final piece of the criteria for me is, would you consider the player as a candidate to the best player ever or at least at their position? Answer yes and he's in the club. One other thing to remember is that just because a player isn't on this list doesn't mean I think they aren't a good player. Also, I only went with NHL players. I would love to have Vladislav Tretiak on this list as I think he's near the top, if not at the top of the 'best goalie ever' list, but despite being drafted in 1983 by Montreal he never made it into a Canadiens or any other NHL jersey. If he had come over it makes you wonder what would have happened with Patrick Roy's career, but that's for another story.
I've had this list for quite a few years after a conversation with Oilers play by play man Kevin Quinn during a morning skate one day. At one point I had a level of 'below average' and worse, then realized that anyone who can skate in the NHL for one game should not be considered below average. I wonder if the term average is an insult to an NHL player, but in comparison to generational players I think average is ok.
I also reached out to someone I admire and respect. A Stanley Cup Champion member of the Dallas Stars, former General Manager of the Calgary Flames and current Director of Scouting for TSN Craig Button to get his criteria for getting into the GPC.
"Generational players aren't players who establish themselves when they're 22."
Meaning you either have it or you don't. It's not something that comes with hard work and development or stats and Stanley Cups.
"Generational player for me is someone who establishes themselves as clearly ahead of everybody else in their age group. Clearly ahead of everybody else."
So who's in Craig's GPC?
"I think Shane Wright could be the next guy. Connor Bedard? Not a chance. Auston Matthews? Not a chance. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky. Those are the guys. I think it's a very small group. You're so far ahead of of your peer group its frightening."
Not making the list isn't a slight, it's just that this is the elite of the elite and even current and past super stars get turned away at the door.
"Bobby Orr was so far ahead of his peer group, Paul Coffey wasn't. Auston Matthews wasn't, Connor McDavid was. (Alexis) Lafreniere, he's a star he's not a generational player he's not even close. (Nathan) Mackinnon wasn't a generational player, (John) Tavares, (Steven) Stamkos, star players."
So without further ado, here is my list of who I consider a generational player (a couple of more players than Craig had) and my reasons why.
Some players start trends in sports that die out, Jacques Plante started something that every goalie since has followed, wearing a mask. He started using one during practice in 1956 but it wasn't until November 1st 1959 that he donned one for the first time. Plante however had another impact on the game much earlier in his career. During his time in the minor leagues he became one of the first goalies to roam from his crease and play the puck. It likely started out frustration over bad defensive play and it certainly frustrated his coaches in the early going but it gave Plante an extra skill set that set him a part from the rest of the goalies in the NHL. He would routinely go behind the net to stop pucks and teammates had to be ready for his long stretch pass. He was also instrumental in charging out of his crease to cut down the angle of the shooter which at times led to collisions with opponents and teammates. He was driven to be the best and was always on the look out for a better way to do things.
Plante was also extremely reliable and durable while playing one of the most demanding and dangerous positions. His career spanned almost 30 years with a retirement and unretirement included. In 18 seasons he averaged more than 46 starts a season, many times started over 60 games a year and played until he was 46 years old retiring with the Edmonton Oilers of the WHA.
First of all the 'Rocket' was smart and resourceful. As a kid there was a rule that you could only play on one team, but every team wanted him. Solution? He used fake names to play on different clubs, and no matter what name he went by, he was a star early. He was also as fierce as they had ever seen on the ice with piercing, burning eyes and a temper that would make the devil blush. This of course got the better of him at times, most notably the Richard Riot March 17th, 1955.
At 5.10 he wasn't the most imposing figure height wise, but when he exploded like a rocket from the blue line and bore down on the net he was nearly impossible to stop. Richard was the definition of pure goal scorer as he focused primarily on getting the puck and putting it behind the goalie. A famous quote attributed to a teammate was that "Maurice wouldn't even pass the salt". Fearless with a deadly shot on both his forehand and backhand made him dangerous from any spot near the net, and if you were in his way it wasn't going to end well for you.
When your nickname is 'Mr. Hockey' that's a good place to start. Howe started in the NHL 5 years after Richard and took the power game to a whole new level. In fact in Howe's first trip to the Montreal Forum Richard challenged him physically and Howe knocked him out cold. Howe was ambidextrous and could rush down the left side of the ice and fire a left handed shot at the net only to burn down the right side seconds later and fire from the right side, leaving the goalie to wonder what he was actually seeing. His shot had power, accuracy and a quick release that goalies had a hard time catching up to and if they did, keeping it from rebounding or bouncing in behind them.
The Hanson brothers salute "Gordie" in the legendary hockey movie Slap Shot by raising their elbows, as entering the corner with Howe meant you were likely going to eat one or two. He was powerful and determined and he played in 5 different decades which is simply legendary. Howe was at the time one of the heavier players and used his size to intimidate players into backing off and for those who didn't he was more than willing to physically demonstrate what he meant. It didn't matter who you were or what the situation was, Gordie Howe was all in all the time, he fought in an all star game once. Even the Great One wasn't immune to Howe's intimidation
His legacy includes a specific event during a game which was named after his all around toughness and talent. When a player scores a goal, picks up an assist and drops the gloves it's called a Gordie Howe Hat Trick. His knack for knowing when the referee had his back turned is also legendary. Howe was a terrific all around athlete and likely could have succeeded in other sports as well. There was nobody quite like Gordie Howe and there likely never will be.
Considered by most to be the best defenceman of all time and for some the sports greatest player, Orr wasn't the first blue liner to rush the puck up ice, but the first to be a threat to do it every time he touched the puck. Like others on this list he was turning heads early. Playing with kids two years older a 12 years old Orr played 58 minutes in a game the Boston Bruins scouts were at looking at other players. The other two minutes of the game he spent in the penalty box. At 14 he was playing junior in Oshawa with 19 and 20 year olds. At 16 he was on a national magazine cover in Canada. Needless to say the writing was on the wall early and he didn't disappoint when he reached the NHL.
When he carved his way up the ice it was like his opponents were standing still and he just weaved in and out and around them to score and set up teammates. He was a video game before video games existed. His point shot was hard and low, perfect for scoring or deflections making him the ultimate power play QB. The one thing that Orr likely doesn't get enough credit for is his toughness. He was fearless with and without the puck and while it added to the legend it ultimately caused an early demise and retirement playing just 26 games in his final 2 years. However his impact was left on the game with some of the NHLs best players at the time admitting he was unstoppable.
This is the first player on the list I had a chance to watch live and like Orr 'The Great One' was long projected to be a star. You likely know the legend of Walter Gretzky's back yard rinks and young Gretzky's domination of players many years older than him at every level.
Clearly he wasn't the biggest or fastest guy at any level he played, he was simply the best no matter who he was up against or compared to. He admittedly didn't have the hardest shot but it was dead eye accurate from anywhere in any situation, ask Mike Vernon. (:55 second mark)
Gretzky's ability to deke around opponents and goalies was jaw dropping and the passes he made quickly had teammates making sure they were always ready when #99 had the puck. His impact was so great on the NHL that six years into his career the league changed the rule regarding coincidental penalties. Previously both teams would lose a player when this happened, and that simply gave Gretzky more space to work with and get even more creative. Another massive impact he had on the game was from behind the net. Gretzky would set up with the puck below the goal line so much it was referred to as 'his office'. He would suck teams in, or simply wait for teammates to get in scoring positions and thread the needle through sticks and skates, or at other times see a scoring chance for himself from behind the cage. There were times when it seemed like he was playing keep away from everyone else only to finish with a goal or ridiculous set up for a team mate. It was poetry on ice. Gretzky is easily in the GPC, in fact he's the top dog among the elite, so much so the NHL retired his number 99 league wide when he retired in 1999.
Like Richard and Howe overlapping during their careers, hockey fans of my age (born in the mid 70's) were lucky enough to see two generational players at the same time. Mario the Magnificent was in his first year of junior when Gretzky won the third of his record nine Hart Trophies - Gretzky won eight straight before Mario won his first and broke up the streak. By then Lemieux had his own reputation and was being compared to Gretzky during his three year junior career.
The comparisons were inevitable, but they were different players starting with size. Lemieux had four inches and 45 pounds on Gretzky and used his size as much as his skill which he oozed. His first shift in his first NHL game he stole the puck from Ray Bourque and scored on a breakaway on his first shot. From there it was one dazzling play after another.
He was not only able to use his size to protect the puck, but his reach and ridiculously soft hands to make short work of some of the best, like what he did to a Hall of Fame defenceman who was considered one of the best, if not the best of his time. Once in tight it was either deke out the goalie or use his laser like shot to move the mesh.
Like the Gretzky rule about coincidental penalties the NHL owners brought in, the players sought ways to stop Lemieux, but instead of a rule change, they just hacked and wacked him so much that he referred to the NHL as a 'Garage League' in 1992 and shockingly retired in 1997 over frustration with the NHL's Saturday night wrestling tactics. However the slashes and cheap shots were nothing compared to the fight he took on at the height of his playing career, beating Hodgkins Lymphoma during the 1992-93 season. He missed 2 months of the season and returned to action on the same day as his final radiation treatment and proceeded to make up a12 point deficit to win the NHL's scoring race by 12 points over Pat LaFontaine. At times he simply could not be stopped, not by opposing players, goalies, goons or cancer and his mesmerizing highlights are still stuff of legends.
Let's start at the end shall we, or should I say the present as I think Jagr's career might never end. He is 48 years old, was drafted in 1990 and has a contract to play in the Czech Republic next season. He has played so long he suited up for Czechoslovakia before the country split in two. At 15 he was skating at the top level in his country and became the youngest player to make the national team at 17. His early NHL career was spent in Lemieux's shadow with Pittsburgh but as time went on Mario Jr - an anagram of his first name - started to show how dominant he could be.
Incredible. Oddly enough one scouting report on Jagr in his draft year was that he 'wasn't very flashy.' The big man with the mullet could stickhandle in a phone booth. Amazingly slick and when he wasn't undressing teams, he was an immovable object. Jagr is listed at more than 250 pounds and when he stuck his butt in a goalies face or turned to protect the puck with his rear end he was like a boulder.
Like Howe, Jagr has amazing staying power playing over 2200 professional games and counting and he also played during a punishing era for NHL stars (see Lemieux above). He would easily be the NHL's all time games played leader had he not taken 3 years off to play in the KHL and I wouldn't be shocked if he returned to the NHL again to play 35 games and pass Howe on the list.
Skill, size and staying power gets Jagr entry into the GPC.
There are fast players. There are big players. There are skilled players. Eric Lindros was all 3 at the elite level and when the Big E burst onto the scene it took injuries to stop the train. He was a childhood prodigy and an international star before he joined the NHL's Flyers ending a lengthy hold out from Quebec thanks to a massive deal involving seven players, two draft picks and $15 million cash. Lindros suited up for Canada in three World Junior Tournaments, the 1991 Canada Cup and the 1992 Olympic Games before putting on an NHL jersey (he refused to put the Nordiques jersey on at the draft).
Like Gordie Howe before him, Lindros gave new meaning to the term power forward by showing off the hands of a man much smaller than his six foot four inch 240 pound frame would have you think. His speed meant he could burn around opponents and his size allowed him to run them over. Once in a scoring position, Lindros had terrific 'finishing hands' as Craig Button from TSN calls them. Players of his size were rare. Players with his size, speed and skill were non existent, he was the first.
Unfortunately like Orr, injuries shortened the Hall of Famers career, but unlike Orr who's knees took the punishment it was concussions that robbed Lindros of time. Thankfully we still have the memories of his utter domination.
The first player on this list from the social media age and the first guy who didn't grow up in North America, but that didn't mean hockey fans didn't know who the 'Great 8' was. In 2003 LinkedIn was started where people could post their resumes online and for businesses to find employees. One year later Ovechkin, resume in hand, went first overall to Washington, but had to wait to make his debut due to the NHL lock out. By the time he took the ice in the NHL, YouTube was up and running and fans world wide could see what he was doing.
Like The Rocket before him, Ovechkin was a pure goal scorer, but without Richard's temper (not that many had a temper equal to Maurice Richard). However don't mistake a lack of anger for a lack of physical play or intensity. Ovechkin uses his explosive speed and momentum to crush guys and he's not a small dude at six foot two and more than 230 pounds. At times he's a heat seeking missile, zeroing in on defencemen or forwards caught in his train tracks. Unlike Richard who would burn in from the blueline and use his backhand quite often, Ovechkin plays the left wing as a right handed shot which sets him up perfectly for one timers, particularly on the power play. It's his 'office' if you will. Try as they might, NHL teams and goalies have not been able to stop him shot after shot. From putting two players on him to having one player simply stand beside him on the power play, it's all been tried and has failed. There have been a lot of highly skilled goal scorers in the NHL from Mike Bossy to Brett Hull and beyond, but none as prolific for so long as Alexander the Great who even Wayne Gretzky thinks could catch him in the record books. From his wicked one timer to a bulls eye like wrist shot and a lightning quick release snap shot, Ovechkin can beat goalies in the blink of an eye and truly is a goal scoring machine.
Like Gretzky and Lemieux 'Sid the Kid' and Ovechkin were and are constantly compared to each other. They were first overall picks in back to back years and unlike the Great One and Mario the Magnificent who were in different conferences, Crosby and Ovechkin are not only in the same conference but the same division and their head to head match ups are legendary. As is Sidney Crosby, even his birthday is impressive. 8-7-87, so you know why he wears 87. He gave his first interview at the age of 7 and has been in the spotlight ever since, never seeming to flinch from the glare or shrink from a situation, coming up clutch time after time in the NHL and on the world's stage.
Crosby strength comes from his core and lower body, he's only five foot eleven inches but you won't find any opponent that will tell you he isn't a load to deal with at any spot on the ice. His hockey IQ is off the charts and his puck handling skills give him the ability to create scoring chances at will for himself or teammates. His speed allows him to attack on the outside or cut to the middle and split the d. An accurate shot and a deadly back hand. But it's not just offence with Cole Harbour's most famous citizen. He forechecks incredibly hard and is dogged and relentless on the back check. His instincts are off the chart and allows him to read the play in the defensive zone and turn it into offence.
A prolific scorer in junior Crosby was labelled an assist guy his first four years in the league and as driven as he is, started scoring at an elite pace. That's a part of his game that sets him a part from others, his relentless need to get better in every aspect. Unfortunately injuries in the form of concussions struck him down at his peak as he played just 99 games over a three year period.
However the story didn't end there as Crosby recovered and remains in the top 5 player discussion 15 years into his career and a week after his 33rd birthday
The latest player to gain entry into the Generational Players Club and the current 'Best Player in the Game' is someone you really should see live to truly appreciate. How he dominates the game and is simply on another level compared to everyone else on the ice. Watching him on TV you do get to see his greatness from many angles, but at the game live, preferably down low at ice level you can't believe how fast he really is, in every aspect of the game.
I have had the privilege of watching McDavid live many times, from the 2015 World Junior Championship in Toronto to covering him as an Edmonton Oiler, and just when you think you've seen the greatest goal from him, he raises the bar.
He's also been doing it since he first put on skates at the age of three and started playing the game a year later. At six his parents put him on a team in a league with nine year olds after his local hockey association refused to move him up a level.
McDavid is like no player I have watched before, and it feel like what it must have been to watch Orr or Gretzky for the very first time. He simply is the fastest player I have seen on skates and while there have been really fast and skilled players before (Mike Modano, Mike Gartner) nobody has been on this level where the hands are just as quick as the feet and the brain.
I feel if you were able to see what he sees it would be like Neo from the Matrix when he realizes his full powers. McDavid seems to see things two steps ahead and makes it look so easy you would think the rest of the league is in slow motion.
The Oilers captain can stop on a dime, his cut back moves break ankles and he can shift into ludicrous speed from a standing point and be past the defender before you can say 'Spaceballs'. Defenceman have no chance if he gets a step on them, unless they take a penalty, of which he should draw many more than he does currently. His hands as mentioned are lightning quick like his feed and just watching him in warm up can make you dizzy as his stick handling is a blur. Whether it's blowing past opponents or dangling through them and twisting them inside out McDavid rarely goes a game without a great scoring chance that he usually finishes on by undressing the goalie or ripping a shot upstairs. McDavid's vision is almost Gretzky like in that he can deliver a pass when everyone in the building was thinking he would shoot or couldn't possibly sneak the puck through.
Like all great players he has a passion to be the best, which he already is, and like Crosby he has started scoring more and more each season making goalies guess each time he has the puck with a team mate near by.
I have no problem saying that after Gretzky, Connor McDavid is the best hockey player I have watched live.
One final note, this is my list, which is different from Craig Button's list and likely has more or less names than your list, but it's based on my opinion and an opinion can't be wrong. You can disagree and that's fine. You can make your own list and that's encouraged, but try not to tell anyone they're wrong, simply respectfully disagree.