Rob Ray, one of the North America's leading authors (sorry, couldn't resist), stirred up a good-sized debate on Facebook the other day. Apparently he said recently that there were no great American hockey players.
That sparked a series of responses. Some of them were along the lines of "What? What about Lafontaine, Tkachuk, Chelios, Housley..."
Then I thought about it. Rob may be on to something here.
Let's make a list of the greatest players of all time from anywhere. The top three is pretty set. You can change the order around all you want, but Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe are at the top of the list. Your order probably depends on what you value. Meanwhile, Mario Lemieux is number four.
If you were picking the top 12 players ever, particularly by position, you'd come up with a bunch of good candidates. Among forwards, the list for consideration probably would include Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull, Maurice Richard, Mark Messier and Guy Lafleur. Among defenseman, certainly you'd think Nicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque, Doug Harvey and Larry Robinson are in the hunt. At goal, I'd consider Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur, and Terry Sawchuck.
If you want to include some players from Russia who didn't play much over here, then the names of Tretiak, Yakushev and Fetisov would be considered.
See any Americans there?
The best American player might be Brett Hull, who scored 741 goals. The catch is that he is a joint citizen of the U.S. and Canada, although he played internationally for America. Let's say he doesn't count here for the sake of argument.
From there, my pick for the best U.S. player ever is Brian Leetch. Chris Chelios is right around him in the all-time rankings, and Pat LaFontaine might have been there had his career not been shortened. Mike Modano was really good for a long time.
Yes, the Americans listed are great players by most definitions. But they aren't the best of the best. I don't think you'd put any of them in the top 10 all-time.
Therefore, Rob just has a different definition of "great." His point is valid when examined that way. The top of the list is dominated by Canadians.