On Oct. 15, 1989, Wayne Gretzky passed Gordie Howe to become the NHL’s all-time leading scorer. He set the record in the sixth game of his 11th season. He would add to that record for another decade.
Put another way, Gretzky needed half a career to better the best that had come before him … or after.
Michael Jordan may be more popular, Babe Ruth more mythical, Michael Phelps more decorated, but no one separated themselves more from their respective competition than Wayne Gretzky.
That was the question we posed to you, our readers, when we set out to determine the GOAT of GOATs: Who dominated their competition the most? And you nailed it, choosing Gretzky over Jordan by a count of 54 percent to 46 percent.
By the measure of points scored, the percent difference between Gretzky and anyone else who’s ever played the game of hockey at its highest level is 39 percent.
He’s set the bar so high, it’s unlikely his records for … deep breath … points scored (2,857), goals (894), assists (1,963), goals in a season (92) and points in a season (215), just to name a few — we could go on … quickest to 50 goals in a season, most assists in a season, most 100-point seasons — will ever be broken.
The old adage “records are made to be broken” does not apply to Wayne Gretzky.
Others have exhibited total dominance of their competition. Babe Ruth hit more home runs than entire teams and when he retired he’d hit 336 more bombs than the man in second, Lou Gehrig.
By percent difference, Richard Petty’s 200 victories in NASCAR’s Cup Series is 62 percent better than David Pearson’s 105 and 70 percent better than Jeff Gordon’s 93.
But the Babe was eventually passed, while 140 of Petty’s victories came prior to NASCAR’s modern era.
The biggest knock, if there is one against Gretzky, is that he played in a scoring-heightened era, and that when adjusted for points per game by era, Mario Lemieux tops the list. While true, here’s how many points Gretzky scored vs. his competition in the first 10 years of his career (vs. Lemieux in parenthesis), or the time it took him to surpass Howe:
1985: +73 (+108)
1986: +74 (+74)
1987: +75 (+76)
1988: -19 (-19)
1989: -31 (-31)
Twenty years after his final game, Gretzky’s point total remains 1,007 clear of the field. Only 87 other players in the history of the NHL have scored even that many.
Finally, if he’d never scored a single goal, Gretzky’s assist total would still make him the NHL’s all-time scoring leader. To put that much distance between you and the competition is unheard of at the professional level, but Wayne Gretzky managed to do it.
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