With the 25th anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky trade, the question is posed whether he's the greatest player of all time, or is Bobby Orr, or even Mario Lemieux, or... It's problematic, maybe impossible to determine, for a lot of the reasons, but it's also inevitable that it gets asked and debated about.
I think players like Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe had a combination of genetic gifts that would have made them a success in any age. They had loads of natural ability that would have served them well with whatever training methods, equipment, style of play or standard of refereeing reigned.
But then again, Gordie Howe credits a lot of his physical gifts and strength to all the hay bales he threw around working on the farm. If he was born nowadays in the city, and played computer games instead of developing a never-quit work ethic while working the family farm, would he be the same player?
And if Walter Gretzky is caught in the modern economy, without a steady union job that provides a secure future for his family, does he ever own a house and have the ability to build a backyard rink where Wayne develops that otherwordly vision and those puck skills?
Does Guy Lafleur become the player he did if in a post-9/11 world of airtight security his local rink is locked up tight and alarmed after hours, and he can't sneak in and get his alone time on the ice early mornings?
If Larry Robinson, instead of being drafted in the second round on a deep Montréal team and having the opportunity to go to Halifax and work on his game, and becoming the relative late-bloomer All-Star he was, goes to the putrid Vancouver Canucks and is rushed into service, does he become Harold Snepts? In fact, since his draft age is now 18 instead of 20 back then, does he get drafted at all, seeing as how he wasn't setting the Ontario junior leagues on fire at that age?
So I usually stop myself and just consider that the players who were so dominant in their era compared to their peers who grew up in roughly the same conditions would probably have done well in any era. So the conversation returns to Wayne and Bobby Orr and Mario, and guys like Eddie Shore and Doug Harvey and Joe Malone, who scored 44 goals in 22 games. That has to be the standard, that we judge them against a backdrop of their peers, so to speak.