Crosby ‘Way More Talented Than Gretzky’? Uh, NO

Wayne Gretzky, the undisputed most dominant team sports athlete of all-time, turned 50 earlier this week.

Wayne Gretzky

(Not Great. Greatest.)

While guesting on the Dan Patrick Show today, another NHL great, Jeremy Roenick, was asked to compare Gretzky to Sidney Crosby.

Instead of the usual, reverential platitudes about both, Roenick gave an unvarnished (and much appreciated) opinion this morning that absolutely knocked me off my barstool chair.

“The era now, the players are so much better. The goaltenders are so much better. The equipment is so much more advanced, it would really hard to compare the two eras, but Gretzky was by far the smartest player but I think Sidney Crosby is definitely way more talented than Wayne.”

Bless Roenick’s heart, but no one in modern sports history was more dominant when compared to his peers than Gretzky. Save perhaps Babe Ruth in the immediate seasons after he became a full-time hitter.

As proof, the chart below shows Crosby and Gretzky compared to their peers during their best statistical seasons.

Wayne Gretzky Sidney Crosby Statistical Comparison

 (Top statistical seasons: Crosby ‘06-07, Gretzky ‘81-82)

It was tough to pick Gretzky’s best statistical season, because there were multiple years in his career that he rung up similar numbers. Crosby has led the NHL in scoring once so far in his still-young career, so his body of work is incomplete. But consider that Gretzky accrued the above numbers at age 20.

It’s folly to ascribe Gretzky’s ability to any one personal characteristic. The only evaluation you need is to look at his jaw-dropping numbers compared to the best his peers had to offer at that time to verify that he wasn’t great. No, Gretzky was the greatest.

I fully recognize that Crosby is more of a defensive player than Gretzky ever was, and for that reason it might be more appropriate to compare Crosby to one of Gretzky’s former teammates, Mark Messier.

All of this isn’t a criticism of Roenick. His opinion is an informed and thought-provoking one, but had he laced the skates against the The Greatest One in the early ’80s, it’s hard to imagine him putting Crosby in the same category as Gretzky. Let alone say Sid was “way more talented.

Roenick’s first full season in the NHL was in 1989-90, which coincided with Gretzky’s 12th full season in the league. By the time Roenick was a full-time NHL player, Gretzky was three full seasons removed from his last, outrageously astounding statistical year.

So with that in mind, it does make sense that Roenick would characterize Gretzky as a player who relied more on guile than physical ability.

Most importantly, what Roenick said got me to thinking seriously about hockey for the first time in quite awhile, which underlines even more Gretzky’s impact on his sport. It isn’t a coincidence that Gretzky played when hockey was still considered a full-fledged major league sport, as he was singularly the reason for the way the U.S.A. embraced the NHL the way it doesn’t today.

Crosby? Not so much.

Presently, the NHL’s acute lack of popularity in the U.S. is due to two simple reasons:

1) No ESPN play-by-play coverage
2) Not enough scoring

Amazing to think how John Ziegler was vilified during his tenure as NHL Commissioner when you consider that Gary Bettman has made almost exactly the same mistakes in marketing the game. (See Bettman’s Versus TV deal and Ziegler’s Sportschannel TV deal.)

Until the NHL gets back on ESPN and strips goalies nude, nothing will change.

Follow Brooks on Twitter for real-time updates.