Column: Connor McDavid is great, but Wayne Gretzky is still the Greatest One

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid and Wayne Gretzky pose for a photo.
Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid, left, and Wayne Gretzky pose for a photo after the Farewell To Rexall Place ceremony following the game against the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016, in Edmonton, Canada.
(Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)

Go ahead, call Connor McDavid the best player in the NHL.

He’s a franchise player who became a franchise changer, a spectacularly talented kid who matured into a man while rallying the Edmonton Oilers past the Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

He was commanding in leading the Oilers past the Calgary Flames and to the Western Conference final against the Colorado Avalanche. He’s gifted with speed that breaks defenders’ ankles and vision that makes him an uncannily accurate passer. With 26 points in his first 12 playoff games he jumped within easy reach of Wayne Gretzky’s record of 47 points in one playoff year, set by Gretzky in 18 games in 1985.


Call McDavid great. Gretzky, the Great One, agrees.

“I think that if there’s any sort of a negative towards Connor this year it’s that I’m not sure he got the recognition that he deserved,” Gretzky said Tuesday before taking up his TNT studio host duties in Denver for the opener of the Western Conference final.

“Yeah, he’s in the running for the Hart Trophy [as the most valuable player] and he won the scoring race going away but people are going to get an opportunity to see him now on an every-second-night basis on normal Eastern time zone. So this is going to be tremendous exposure not only for Connor but for the National Hockey League.”

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Just don’t call McDavid better than the Great One, as some overenthusiastic fans have been doing.

Not yet. Maybe not ever if you take into account Gretzky’s off-ice feats in giving the NHL a relatable, marketable face and making hockey part of the culture in places where ice was most commonly saved for cocktail glasses.

The debate on who’s the NHL’s greatest player is a complicated discussion.

It starts with Gretzky, who had more regular-season assists (1,963) than anyone else had career points. But Mark Messier, Gretzky’s Edmonton teammate, won the Cup four times with Gretzky and twice without him, bringing the New York Rangers the Cup in 1994 in what remains their lone title since 1940.

Wayne Gretzky with the Edmonton Oilers in January 1984.
Wayne Gretzky with the Edmonton Oilers in January 1984.
(Associated Press)

It’s impossible to project what muscular, skillful Mario Lemieux might have accomplished if not for bouts with Hodgkin’s disease and chronic back problems. He still averaged 1.88 points per game in the regular season, second to Gretzky’s 1.92, and won two titles as a player and three as an owner who saved the Penguins from bankruptcy. Bobby Orr revolutionized an entire position, proving defensemen didn’t have to be tree trunks. Gordie Howe had no qualms about elbowing opponents in the face to score a goal. Or just for the hell of it.

Gretzky doesn’t mind where he lands in the debates. “That’s what makes sports great, to sit around and say who is the best team, sit around and say who is the best player,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion and let me say this, Mark Messier and myself and Mario, we’re all from the same sort of age. We did what we did. We loved every minute of it. People can sit around and have their opinions and debate and that’s great for the game.

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid is pressured by Colorado Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson.
Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid is pressured by Colorado Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson during the first period in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Western Conference finals on Tuesday in Denver.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

“As far as Connor goes, listen, the players are better today. The equipment’s better. Everything they do is advanced. So obviously the players of today are better than they were 40 years ago and 50 years ago. But that’s OK, that’s a good thing. Twenty years from now the players are going to be better than the guys today. I don’t even sort of worry about that.”

Gretzky does see one common trait among the greats: the unquenchable drive to be better. “I think it’s simple. By simple I mean you love the game, right, and if you love the game you always believe you can be better the next day,” Gretzky said. “And my goodness, Gordie Howe taught me that when I was 11 years old, that you can always learn each and every day, that the only thing that you can’t buy is work ethic. And if you look at Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe, Mark Messier, they got better every game, and the bigger the game the better they played. They wanted that responsibility. And that’s what Connor’s got now.”

Gretzky, 61, was the Oilers’ vice chairman for five years before he stepped down last year. Also last year, Gretzky and wife Janet Jones sold their Thousand Oaks home and left California. They now live in Florida to be near their three grandchildren, but his impact here lives on in the fans he attracted — now in the second or third generation of fandom — and the youth hockey boom he helped ignite.


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The chance to join the in-studio panel for TNT’s new hockey coverage appealed to him, especially after his longtime friend and TNT basketball studio pundit Charles Barkley sold him on it. Gretzky doesn’t always seem completely at ease alongside fellow panelists Rick Tocchet, Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter and Liam McHugh, but former tough guy Bissonnette’s out-there personality helps break Gretzky’s natural reserve. He also has a good rapport with longtime friend Tocchet.

“Each guy sort of brings something to the program and most importantly is we all get along. We can debate with each other, we can argue with each other, and once we leave the studio it’s over and done with,” Gretzky said. “It’s good to not always agree with each other. I think that’s part of what’s made it fun.”

Having Gretzky involved in hockey in any way is great for fans and for the man who remains, now and ever, the Greatest One.