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THE MOJ: Ovechkin versus Gretzky sparks many a spirited debate

Best way to compare elite athletes is their dominance against their peers
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) skates with the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

With Alexander Ovechkin scoring his 802nd NHL goal and passing Gordie Howe as the league’s second all-time leading goal scorer, the debate continues as to whether or not he can catch Wayne Gretzky, who finished his illustrious career with 894.

Ovechkin’s two goals in Friday night’s 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets moved him to within 92 goals of The Great One.

The debate on whether or not Ovechkin can overtake Gretzky isn’t the only one that is taking place – I’ve actually even heard discussions on who is the better goal scorer and the better player.

The argument that you hear from those who favour Ovechkin is that he is a far superior athlete when it comes to a physical skill set than Gretzky – and I’d agree.

If you were to put Ovechkin in the DeLorean with Marty McFly and drop him off in 1982, he would be Biff Tannen on skates. At the same time, if you picked up Gretzky and time travelled to 2022, he wouldn’t be as great.

But it’s almost impossible to compare the two because there are so many different – and fluid - factors that weigh into the debate.

Ovechkin is the beneficiary of advancements in physical conditioning, equipment, skill development, scouting, nutrition, etc., that Gretzky could never access.

Physically comparing the two athletes is absurd. The same goes with comparing Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon or any other superstar from today’s era to the likes of Howe, Phil Esposito and Guy Lafleur.

Yet Gretzky and his contemporaries had their advantages, too.

Former NHLer and current ESPN analyst Ray Ferraro always liked to point out that the gap between the top six and the bottom six of team’s forward group has narrowed considerably over the years because of the aforementioned advancements.

Gretzky could feast on mismatches because the floor of the talent level was so much lower in his era. Ovechkin doesn’t have the same luxury.

And as far as goaltending is concerned, watching the position being played in the 1980s is almost comical. I’ve always argued that no other position in sport has transformed itself more than goaltending in the last half-century.

READ MORE: Ovechkin nets 2, passes Gordie Howe for 2nd in NHL career goals

Then again, I’ve never been a fan of comparing athletes from different eras.

What I am a fan of is comparing the level of domination of athletes from different eras.

Ovechkin has led the league in scoring on nine different occasions, Gretzky managed the same feat five times.

Gretzky’s career-high was 92 goals in 1981-82 – which was 28 more than the next closest player in Mike Bossy.

Ovechkin’s best tally was the 65 goals he scored in 2007-08 – which was 13 goals better than Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk’s 52.

Those are the types of numbers that should be used to determine who was the more ‘dominant’ player.

And if you want to talk about how dominant Gretzky was versus his peers, look no further than the 1985-86 season in which he scored 52 goals and added 163 assists to finish with 215 points. Some guy named Mario Lemieux finished second in scoring that season with 141 points. In other words, Gretzky had more assists than Lemieux had points.

Gretzky’s dominance was such that some hockey pools would either make him ineligible or split his goals and assist totals into separate two categories.

When Barry Bonds finished his career with 762 home runs and was drawing comparisons to Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, I shook my head again for the same reasons that I mentioned earlier when talking about Gretzky and Ovechkin.

When it came to who was the more dominant player in his generation, it was easily Ruth and it wasn’t even close.

In 1920, Ruth hit 54 home runs for the New York Yankees. The next closest player was George Sisler from St. Louis – who hit 19. In 1921, Ruth hit 59 homers with the next closest being his teammate Bob Meusel who hit 24.

I could go on but you get the idea.

If you want to debate about who is the better or more dominant player, comparing players from different generations is a flawed argument.

Compare them against their peers and you’ll find out who truly was great and or dominant.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.

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