Who is the greatest NHL player of all time?
Easy, right? Wayne Gretzky.
Who else but the player who, over the course of 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 and most still stand today.
Gretzky’s place atop the charts hardly seems debatable, so we’re not going to debate it. Instead, it’s the other 99 spots that follow No. 99 we need to sort out.
Welcome to NHL99, a project that aims to put a fresh spin on a familiar idea: Who are the top 100 players in post-1967 expansion NHL history? Let’s face it, there’ve been multiple 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’s when the game, and the business of hockey, fundamentally changed. Instead of six teams, there were suddenly 12. Instead of a league dominated almost exclusively by Canadians, a trickle and eventually a flood of players arrived from every corner of the world.
Today begins the countdown. We’re calling it NHL99 because there are 99 spots up for debate on our Top 100 list and the number 99 resonates for hockey fans everywhere.
So, spoiler alert, Wayne Gretzky is No. 1 on our list. One could argue Gretzky actually belongs in the Hall of Fame in two categories – as a player and as a builder. Arguably, no single individual did more to grow the NHL game, on and off the ice, than Gretzky.
But it gets interesting, and controversial, after Gretzky. Nine writers from The Athletic votes were given in this project: Eric Duhatschek, Dom Luszczyszyn, Shayna Goldman, Ian Mendes, Scott Wheeler, Sean Gentille, Michael Russo, Sean McIndoe and James Mirtle. The 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 position: 100 points for No. 1 on the list, one point for No. 100, and so on . Gretzky earned a perfect 900 points. At the end of the project, we’ll unveil everyone’s ballots and the point totals. If this sounds familiar it’s because The Athletic has done similar projects with the 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 unveil one player a day, six days a week, along with an in-depth feature hopefully full of stories, angles and anecdotes about these players you’ve never read before. More than 40 writers from across The Athletic newsroom contributed to this project.
Now, a few important caveats about the process, beginning with an acknowledgment that any list discussing the greatest of all time is going to be subjective and can involve some recency bias. And again, our focus is strictly on the NHL from 1967 until now.
That needs to be made very clear because you won’t find Gordie Howe on our list. Is it sacrilege to have a best-players-of-all-time list without Mr. Hockey? Maybe, but Howe only played 369 NHL games from 1967-68 onwards and spent six seasons in the WHA. So he’s out. You also won’t find Bobby Hull or Maurice Richard or Howie Morenz.
Our thorniest and most complicated choices involved players who straddled the two ends of the spectrum. Some slipped through the cracks because their greatest impacts came prior to 1967. Some, who will eventually qualify, didn’t make the list because they are still in the early stages of their careers.
Our threshold was 400 games completed at the end of the 2021-22 regular season, which is the games-played criteria to qualify for an NHL pension. So Austin Matthews (407 career games) made it, barely. Cale Makar did not; he has only played 173 NHL regular-season games. It is a difficult 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, generate a conversation about who might have made the list and was overlooked.
One caveat though: If you want to add your favorite player or dispute one of our selections, you’ll also need to subtract someone from the list.
Which you’ll discover in time, as the list counts down, might be easier said than done.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett, Gregory Shamus, Mike Powell, Justin K. Aller / Getty Images)