Statistics Don’t Lie: “Mr. Hockey” Is the Greatest Hockey Player of All Time
By Fred Isbell, senior director and head of Thought Leadership – Digital Business Services Marketing, SAP
The hockey world recently mourned the loss of Gordie Howe, one of the greatest professional hockey players and athletes, who passed away at the age of 88. We were inundated with great memories and stories of “Mr. Hockey,” as he was fondly known, and countless personal statements of his value to the world of hockey and sports.
One of the many messages that flashed across my iPhone that day was the statement:
“Numbers say Howe was the best ever: statistical analysis confirms his place as the greatest player in hockey history.”
Tapping into my data geek side and passion as a hockey player and fan, I decided to look at the numbers myself. Fortunately, I have a great resource at my fingertips – the NHL.com statistics page with insights by SAP.
The truth about statistics
Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Anyone can form an argument with numbers and statistics, but I truly believe that this information is powerful ammunition for adding critical insight, inspiring decisions, and supporting actions.
I’ve made a career out of telling stories supported by numbers and analytics. I was fortunate to be around for the emergence of business Intelligence and learned first-hand how data can be transformed into information that enables insight and informed decision making.
How does this apply to the great Gordie Howe?
Mr. Hockey by the numbers
Gordie Howe was truly one of a kind, playing across five decades – six if we count the one shift he played in the International Hockey League (IHL) during the 1990’s. I always knew this was the case, but I didn’t understood the full depth of his talent until I dug deeper into the numbers in the National Hockey League (NHL) statistics page.
- Games played: Howe played the most games of any player in the NHL – 1,767 games after retiring in the early 1970’s from the Detroit Red Wings. However, when we factor in his return to hockey in the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) a couple of years later, the total is 2,186 – the most for any player in the history of the game. I saw him play in the 1979–1980 season for the Hartford Whalers when they joined the NHL, and he played all 80 games in his early 50’s.
- Goals: A young Wayne Gretzky was taught the importance of a backhand shot by Gordie. Fittingly, Wayne eclipsed him to become #1 on a backhand shot as an LA King. Howe’s 801 goals are #2 to “The Great One,” and Jaromor Jagr is 52 behind him as he plays on in his early 40’s – the age of Gordie’s first retirement from hockey.
- Assists: As a Coach, I always reinforced the value of assists on par with goals. A great playmaker is worth their weight in gold. In Howe’s case, 1,049 assists rank ninth in the game’s history, and the only active player in striking distance to pass him is San Jose Sharks superstar Joe Thornton. However, when you factor in his 334 assists in the WHA, you soon see that he logged an astounding 1,383 assists over his remarkable career – second only to Gretzky, who was truly the best playmaker in hockey.
- Total points: Gordie Howe’s NHL totals of 1,850 was the watershed mark eclipsed by Wayne Gretzky. Howe is #5 as Jagr passed him this past season to sit behind Gretzky and Messier. Factor in the WHA totals again, and Gordie is again #2 next to Gretzky with 2,358 points in 2,186 combined NHL and WHA games. That’s well over a point a game, on average. But then again, there’s nothing average about that statistic whatsoever!
- Franchise player: Howe is the all-time point’s leader for the Detroit Red Wings franchise, ahead of fellow Hall-of-Famer Steve Yzerman. One of the best memories I have heard about Howe was told by Yzerman, who spoke eloquently about Howe’s legacy as “Mr. Hockey” in Detroit (which is also known as “Hockey Town”).
- Penalty minutes: One of the gifts “Mr. Hockey” gave us was the concept of a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” – a goal, assist, and a fight. I’ll let readers assess Howe’s toughness, sharp elbows, and willingness to drop the gloves when needed. His 1,685 penalty minutes rank #92 overall, averaging about one minute of penalties per game. Compared to many players, that’s not much. He’s right next to current Philadelphia Flyers President Paul Holmgren, who averaged more than 4 minutes per game in penalties. But, his toughness was legendary as a key part of his leadership and his performance.
- Modern statistics: Since Howe played before modern statistics were recorded, we do not have a benchmark for shots, time on ice, CORSI, shots attempted, face-off winning percentage, and other data. The NHL didn’t start collecting player plus/minus statistics – the difference between goals scored and goals scored by the opposition – until the expansion era of 1967–1968. Consequently, Howe’s +87 stat is not an accurate reflection of his true two-way play.
- Leadership and more: Four Stanley Cup championships tie him with Gretzky’s and Messier’s six. An NHL all-star appearance record of 23 times, including his final season. Six Hart MVP trophies. A remarkable 21 consecutive years making the list of top ten scorers. And six Art Ross top scorer trophies. That’s both statistical dominance and consistency over 50 years. If that’s not greatness, I don’t know what is!
The best there ever was, and the best there ever will be
Considering the numbers, I declare with great confidence that “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player of all time. I had the pleasure to see him play at the very end of his career and enjoyed following him since. Off the ice, he was an amazing hockey ambassador and much more.
We’ll miss you “Mr. Hockey.” It’s no lie indeed – you are the greatest of all time. And if anyone dares to challenge me, expect a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” and we’ll settle it on the ice!
Fred is the senior director and head of Thought Leadership for Digital Business Services Marketing at SAP. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, he’ll be a Whaler and Gordie Howe fan forever.