If the Sidney Crosby-free but highly successful 2011 playoffs proved anything, it’s that there is plenty of star power to go around in the NHL. That being said, there’s a difference between watching the star of the moment and a witnessing a force of sheer entertainment. We’re talking about the kind of player whose over-the-top skills won’t be forgotten and whose abilities make them worth the price of admission.
To some extent, a player can often be memorable for being ahead of his time or for utilizing methods that simply should not work. Bobby Orr captivated hockey fans in Massachusetts and beyond with the kind of skating skills and two-way abilities that made others pale in comparison. It’s tough not to least ask if he would be as special in the modern NHL, though. In retrospect, it’s almost as if he traveled back in time to revolutionize his position.
However you explain exactly why those players are or were so special, NHL.com’s John Kreiser compiled an interesting list of the most exciting players of all-time. It’s pretty tough to argue with his list, but let’s look at (and expand upon) his arguments. We’ll begin with two active players who should be on the tip of any unbiased hockey fan’s tongue.
Alex Ovechkin (2005-06 – present)
… But it wasn’t just how many goals Ovechkin scored — it was the way he scored them. A spectacular goal against Phoenix in his rookie season, scored falling down on his back, told the hockey world he was something special, and he’s added to his library of “how did he do that” moments with each passing year.
Pavel Datsyuk (2001-02 – present)
The 1980s had the “Savardian Spin-o-rama.” The 2000s had the “Datsyukian Deke.”
Pavel Datsyuk’s offensive numbers with the Detroit Red Wings won’t match his countryman Ovechkin’s totals with Washington — they are different types of players. But while Datsyuk may not ring up 50 goals, he doesn’t have to take a backseat to anyone when it comes to highlight-reel moments.
Describing what makes Ovechkin and Datsyuk special is the hockey equivalent to a music critic trying to contextualize the impact of the Beatles or Bob Dylan’s most famous works; after a while you run out of ways to skin that cat. One could argue that Ovechkin is the choice of casual fans while “connoisseurs” might prefer Datsyuk, but in the grand scheme of things they’re both able to ply their on-ice art in a time in which teams are better prepared to stop scorers than ever before. (Although defenses were certainly given more freedom to impede scorers in the Dead Puck Era.)
Kreiser provides some bullet-proof great choices from earlier eras, tabbing Orr, Bobby Hull, Guy Lafleur, Denis Savard and Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.
Maurice Richard (1942-43 – 1959-60)
Maurice Richard did one thing better than any player of his generation — put the puck in the net. He was as unstoppable from the blue line to the net as any player in NHL history. The sight of Richard, eyes ablaze as he attacked the goal, was enough to send a shiver down the spine of any NHL goaltender.
Two semi-recent stars Kreiser mentioned were Pavel Bure and Dominik Hasek. “The Dominator” was such a unique goaltending presence that Kreiser lead off his article by discussing the one of a kind Czech goalie.
By the time Hasek arrived in the NHL, with Chicago in 1990, the butterfly was in full vogue. But Hasek was more than just a butterfly goalie — he would do anything, use anything, to keep the puck out of the net. That could mean flopping, rolling onto his back, doing a snow angel, leaving his stick on the ice or gloving the puck with his blocker — he never gave up on a shot, and found ways to keep pucks from entering the net that other goaltenders hadn’t even dreamed of. His unorthodox style may have driven his coaches crazy, but it drove opposing shooters to distraction while earning him the nickname “The Dominator.”
Hasek’s excitement quota was off the charts — you never knew what new move he’d come up with to keep the puck out of the net.
Tim Thomas might be our closest answer to Hasek, but he admitted that he couldn’t use a Hasek-type sprawling move after a few years at the NHL Awards in June. Thomas said players have gotten too adept at lifting the puck for him to use the type of spinning save that Hasek used in the past (see No. 6 and No. 2 in this countdown for a solid example of what Thomas was talking about).
Hasek might be a solid example of what I was talking about earlier, then: a force ahead of his time. Maybe Hasek’s slinky-spine tactics wouldn’t work quite as well – and maybe Orr’s innovative game wouldn’t have been so impossible to match – in a higher skill league today, but perhaps that’s part of what made them such sites to see in their primes?
Either way, hockey fans should enjoy every chance they get to watch Ovechkin and Datsyuk. Players with their jaw-dropping skills don’t come along every day.