Mister Hockey, R.I.P.

Gordie Howe, the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history, has died at the age of 88. It was my privilege to watch Howe in action during the several years when I lived within range of the WXYZ, the Detroit TV station whose play-by-play announcer was Budd Lynch.

Why do I say that Howe was the greatest goal-scorer? Wayne Gretzky scored more career goals than Howe, and had nine seasons in which his goal-scoring surpassed Howe’s best season. I explained it 10 years ago. The rest of this post is a corrected version of the original.

Wayne (The Great One) Gretzky holds the all-time goal-scoring record for major-league hockey:

  • 894 goals in 1,487 regular-season games in the National Hockey League (1979-80 season through 1998-99 season)
  • Another 46 regular-season goals in the 80 games he played in the World Hockey Association (1978-79 season)
  • A total of 940 goals in 1,567 games, or 0.600 goals per game.

The raw numbers suggest that Gretzky far surpassed Gordie (Mr. Hockey) Howe, who finished his much longer career with the following numbers:

  • 801 regular-season goals in 1,767 NHL games (1946-47 through 1970-71 and 1979-80)
  • Another 174 goals and 419 games in the WHA (1973-74 through 1978-79)
  • A total of 975 goals in 2,186 games, or 0.446 goals per game.

That makes Gretzky the greater goal scorer, eh? Not so fast. Comparing Gretzky’s raw numbers with those of Howe is like comparing Pete Rose’s total base hits (4,256) with Ty Cobb’s (4,189), without mentioning that Rose compiled his hits in far more at-bats (14,053) than Cobb (11,434). Thus Cobb’s lifetime average of .366 far surpasses Rose’s average of .303. Moreover, Cobb compiled his higher average in an era when batting averages were generally lower than they were in Rose’s era.

Similarly, Howe scored most of his goals in an era when the average team scored between 2.5 and 3 goals a game; Gretzky scored most of his goals in an era when the average team scored between 3.5 and 4 goals a game. The right way to compare Gretzky and Howe’s goal-scoring prowess is to compare the number of goals they scored in each season to the average output of a team in that season. This following graph does just that.

Howe vs. Gretzky
Sources: Howe’s season-by-season statistics; Gretzky’s season-by-season statistics; gateway to NHL and WHA season-by-season league statistics.

Gretzky got off to a faster start than Howe, but Howe had the better record from age 24 onward. Gretzky played 20 NHL seasons, the first ending when he was 19 years old and the last ending when he was 38 years old. Over the comparable 20-season span, Howe scored 4.3 percent more adjusted goals than did Gretzky. Moreover, Howe’s adjusted-goal total for his entire NHL-WHA career (32 seasons) exceeds Gretzky’s (21 seasons) by 43 percent. Howe not only lasted longer, but his decline was more gradual than Gretzky’s.

And Howe — unlike Gretzky — played an all-around game. He didn’t need an enforcer for protection; he was his own enforcer, as many an opponent learned the hard way.

Gordie Howe was not only Mister Hockey, he was also Mister Goal Scorer. “No doot aboot it.”

With Gordie Howe and Ty Cobb, Detroit’s major-league hockey and baseball franchises can claim the greatest players of their respective sports.