As I said in these “pages” two weeks ago, selecting an all-time list of greats is a bit of a mug’s game. You can’t ever win. While there are certainly a few guys on the NHL’s recent 100 Greatest Players list that I wouldn’t have selected – and not nearly enough names from the game’s early days for my liking! – most people want to see names they remember.
People have been debating the game’s all-time greats pretty much from the time organized hockey began. Newspapers were selected all-star teams as long ago as the 1890s, and there was no more censuses then than there is today. Then as now, it seems, a big part of the debate was shaped by where you came from and who you grew up watching.
On January 20, 1912, the Vancouver World ran a story debating “Who Was The Best of Big Hockey Players?” Though I think it’s meant as a straight account, it reads almost like a parody. None of the people proposing possible players (all of those I list below are future Hall of Famers) is identified by name and yet they seem to come from all across the country.
No sooner is someone naming Russell Bowie as the greatest player they’ve ever seen, then “a former backer of the Ottawa club” is saying that Frank McGee was better. Then a former Winnipeg resident currently living in Calgary is making the case for Kenora’s Tommy Phillips, where upon a Montreal man states his claim to Hod Stuart. There are also voices speaking in favour of Cyclone Taylor, Alf Smith, Rat Westwick, Lester Patrick, Percy Lesueur and Harvey Pulford. (Alas, no one speaks up for Art Ross!)
Except for Lester Patrick, none of these old-time greats ever played in the NHL and wouldn’t have been considered for the Centennial list. But this was not the case 30 years later, when Cooper Smeaton listed the greatest players he’d ever seen. Smeaton was a fine hockey player in his youth, but made his mark in the game as a referee, first in the National Hockey Association and then the National Hockey League, earning his own spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In the Ottawa Journal on November 14, 1942, Smeaton made two lists of all-time greats from the earlier and later stages of his career. Of the 12 players he named, 11 would make it to the Hall of Fame, but only Georges Vezina made it to the NHL’s current list of 100 Greatest Players. Interestingly, Smeaton snubs Eddie Shore (who did – very deservedly! – make it) in favour of his Boston teammate Lionel Hitchman, who has never made it to the Hall of Fame, having been overlooked pretty much forever as have so many other defensive defensemen throughout the years. Give the image below a click to see Smeaton’s list and read his reasons.