Sunday, January 15, 2006

Mister Hockey

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), for an average of 0.601 goals per game
  • Another 46 regular-season goals in the 80 games he played in the World Hockey Association (1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons)
  • 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 ("only" 0.453 per goals per game), in an NHL career that spanned the seasons from 1946-47 through 1970-71 and 1979-80
  • Another 143 goals and 349 games in the WHA, from 1973-74 through 1978-79
  • A total of 944 goals in 2,116 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 (4,191), without mentioning that Rose compiled his hits in far more at-bats (14,053) than Cobb (11,429). Thus Cobb's lifetime average of .367 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, whereas 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.

Sources: Howe's season-by-season statistics, here; Gretzky's season-by-season statistics, here; NHL season-by-season team statistics, beginning here; WHA season-by-season team statistics, here.

Gretzky got off to a faster start than Howe, but Howe has 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 5 percent more adjusted goals than did Gretzky. Moreover:
  • Howe's adjusted-goal total for his NHL career (26 seasons) exceeds Gretzky's by 30 percent.*
  • Howe's adjusted-goal total for his entire NHL-WHA career (32 seasons) exceeds Gretzky's (21 seasons**) by 43 percent.
Gordie Howe is not only Mister Hockey, he is also Mister Goal Scorer. "No doot aboot it."
* This writer, whose method is more complex than mine, gives Howe a 21-percent advantage over Gretzky for their respective NHL careers.

** I have omitted from these calculations Gretzky's 3 goals in 8 games at the end of the 1978-79 WHA season.