All Time Over Time

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.

All Time Ottawa

5 thoughts on “All Time Over Time

  1. So who would you have left off the list? Lindros is questionable for me. Max Bentley – bit of Leaf bias perhaps? I’ll give Gartner a pass for his 30+ goal dependability, and Grant Fuhr – okay. Not sure those cups were because of him. Lots of other goalies left off the list – Glenn Hall? Also wouldn’t include Billy Smith. Love the combativeness, but top 100? Pat Lafontaine – that’s dumb. Patrick Kane – tough one – still playing – but okay. Peter Statsny – borderline. Great player obviously.

  2. Maybe one of these days, when I’ve got some time between projects, I’ll come up with my own top 100…

    Meantime, it’s hard, of course, for ANY of us to know about the players from the old days. And even if EVERYONE who made a list circa 1950 agreed on who were the greatest then, it’s still impossible to know how they stack up against more modern guys! (That’s a big part of the problem.) I mean, no doubt Rocket Richard is an all-time great, but if you put him in a time machine and brought him to today, he’s probably too small and too slow to standout. BUT, if he was born in 1991 instead of 1921, he’d have grown up with better nutrition, better training, etc. But then again, with so many modern distractions, can you assume he’d still have the same innate talent and desire? (Maybe he’d have wanted to be a moguls skier instead of a hockey player!) Still, and though it’s impossible to prove, I figure the best of any era would be the best in any other era if they were born at that time…

    1. Why not make a list by decades, 10 names per decade, to end up with 100? Could be more accurate than the NHL list that have only 2 players before the 1950s.

      1. Makes sense to me! Some people might argue that certain players – Gordie Howe, for instance – would deserve to make it in two different decades. (But it would STILL be more reflective of the NHL’s overall history even if a few guys made it more than once and your “Top 100” actually has only 90+ names!)

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