In 1969-70, Bobby Orr became the first defenceman in NHL history to win the Art Ross Trophy by scoring a record 33 goals for a defenceman, adding a record 87 assists, and finishing with, of course, a record 120 total points, more than Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull, Frank Mahovlich, and every other player in the league. Orr was 22 years old. He won his second Art Ross title in 1974-75 at age 27, and in between he recorded at least 100 points in every season.
Between 1981-82 and 1985-86, Wayne Gretzky trashed the old NHL record book and created one with his singular accomplishments. In just those five years, he scored more than 1,000 points, set a record with 92 goals in one year, 163 assists and 215 total points another year, and was a cumulative +386. At the start of this run he was 21 years old, and at the end he was 25.
Mario Lemieux’s most magnificent season came in 1988-89 when he scored an incredible 85 goals and 199 total points, the closest non-Gretzky player ever to get to 200 points in a single season. Mario was 24 year old at the time.
In 1952-53, at the height of Original Six hockey, the legendary Gordie Howe recorded 49 goals and 95 total points, the latter a record for one NHL season. He was 25 years old.
In truth, the overwhelming majority of the greatest NHL players don’t reach their full potential until they’re about 23 years old. Their zenith lasts about four years, after which they continue to be dominant in the way Usain Bolt is in the final 30 metres of a race – slowing down but still miles ahead of everyone else.
As of today, Sidney Crosby is 22 years old. Alexander Ovechkin just turned 24, and Evgeni Malkin is 23. In other words, the top three players in the game today, the three most exciting, most dominating players, are all just hitting stride. What we’ve seen up until now, spectacular as it has been, is only the top of the iceberg. Or, as they say in show biz, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In hockey talk, the 2009-2010 season could be one for the record books. Crosby, incredibly in his fifth season, needs a new nickname. Sid, after all, is no longer a kid. He has set many “the youngest to” records that he is now entering his mature years chasing himself as well as Gretzky, Mario, Bobby, and “Elbows”.
Malkin, a late bloomer by a year, took his game to another level in the last two rounds of the playoffs last spring to help Pittsburgh win the Cup. He was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner for his phenomenal finish.
Ovechkin is the most exciting player on skates on planet Earth. That missing tooth makes him less handsome than Crosby, and his broken English not a great PR tool, but his actions speak louder than words. One goal after another is the stuff of highlight reel, and as the Capitals get better as a team, Ovechkin will also grow.
There are so many extraordinary players in the NHL, from Jarome Iginla to Martin Brodeur, Marian Gaborik to Joe Thornton and Daniel Alfredsson, but the Big Three are the ones who are carrying the league right now. To make matters even more interesting, this is an Olympic year, and the connections between the three will make for high drama in Vancouver in February 2010.
A growing and more public rivalry between Crosby and Ovechkin heated up last year; a hatred between Malkin and Ovechkin rose to the fore only to dissipate by the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal. Malkin and Crosby are teammates. Malkin and Ovechkin will play for Russia against Crosby’s Canadians.
This love-hate/NHL-international triangle, coupled with the lives of the three hockey-playing saints peaking in tandem, will ensure they are the focus of the hockey season. And as history has shown, they are almost sure to deliver. So, sit back, get your cable package and game-night schedule, and cheer for the ones you love and love to hate the ones you don’t. Hockey doesn’t get better than these guys.