Here's a topic guaranteed to tick off a lot of present and former NHL players, not to mention many of those reading this: The 10 smartest NHL players I've seen.
With apologies to those omitted, I humbly submit for your consideration this list, arranged not in order but as a group. Goalies are not included.
As hockey-loving comedian Mike Myers used to say in his Saturday Night Live "Coffee Talk with Linda Richmond" sketches, "talk amongst yourselves."
Joe Sakic, Ron Francis, Jean Beliveau, Scott Niedermayer, Peter Forsberg, Brian Leetch, Stan Mikita, Henri Richard, Bobby Clarke, Doug Harvey, Jacques Laperriere, Norm Ullman, Brad Park, Bobby Smith and Bobby Orr would be in the next group.
Orr's not on my list because his skating and shooting skills overwhelmed his intellectual contribution just as they overwhelmed every other player in the League. I've never seen a player dominate NHL players the way Orr did in his prime – not even Gretzky, probably because “The Great One” wasn't as strong.
I've never seen an offensive player shake loose from Niedermayer in his defensive zone. He had(s) a book on every opponent and the fastest foot-eye-brain reactions I've seen. You can get rid of poison ivy faster.
Sakic makes the sharpest-angle changes-of-direction at top speed that I've seen. Richard's next, then Ullman. Mikita, Ullman and Richard dramatically changed offensive angles of attack in their time. Not even Orr could control the pace of a game from the blue line like Harvey. Park sneaks between those two. There's no way Laperriere should have dominated the way he did with that scrawny body. Same with Jean Ratelle. It was brains that made them great.
Smith won the Calder Memorial Trophy and was team leader of four Stanley Cup Finalists in 12 years. A vastly underrated player.
With the exception of Pilote, all of these Top 10 players were leaders of dynastic Stanley Cup teams, and none of those teams would have accomplished what they did without them. Pilote, an early Norris Trophy winner, was not the reason the Chicago Blackhawks didn't win more than one Stanley Cup. Keon was.
The list also is balanced between players who were among the strongest of their generation – Howe, Lemieux, Bourque, Gainey – and players whose game eschewed excessive physicality – Gretzky, Pilote, Keon, Lidstrom – and those who balanced strength and cerebral play – Lemaire and Trottier.
These players also share the fact that no coach ever saw the need to overhaul their game and yet they were coachable and adaptable to change. They had it when they arrived in the NHL and only improved on it. For this reason, players like Steve Yzerman, Scott Stevens, Phil Esposito, Al MacInnis and some other highly intelligent players aren't on this list. They're present or future Hockey Hall of Famers because they incorporated what they learned in the NHL with the skills and intelligence they brought to the League.
If I were to change one player on this list, it would be Harvey, who by all accounts could dominate games right up to the age of 45, with the 1967 St. Louis Blues. But I didn't see him in his prime.
Wayne Gretzky -- Wayne's dad, Walter, would make young Wayne sit in front of the television with a rink board and draw lines that corresponded with the path the puck followed during a game. Through this process, Gretzky came to understand where a puck would go in various situations. Thus, he became both the greatest NHL skater-without-the puck and skater-with-the-puck that the game ever has seen, and we include Igor Larionov's Red Army years in that statement. Gretzky also was a poised skater and stickhandling wizard. His peripheral vision and his anticipation of opponent's responses were unsurpassed. He won the Hart Trophy an incredible nine times.
Mario Lemieux -- Lemieux, amazingly, comes closest to dropping from this list because of his superior physical skills. He makes it not only because of his incredible shot selections that led to him being the highest point producer per game in NHL history, but also because of his uncanny defensive play. He had the largest stick-sweep arc of any NHL forward I've seen, allowing him to break up rushes that no other forward could. He also had great defensive anticipation that put him in position to break up those rushes.
Jacques Lemaire -- The inspiration for this story. A supremely fluid skater, he was a hard forechecker with tremendous anticipation and a fierce determination to win. Possibly the proudest man ever to play in the NHL. It was absolutely essential to his nature that he be respected, so he did the necessary physical and intellectual work to achieve that. His understanding of the game is rivaled only by his Montreal Canadiens coach, Scotty Bowman. Lemaire's 70-foot shot that beat Tony Esposito in the 1971 Stanley Cup Final launched the Canadiens' dominance in that decade and was a result of his never-ending effort to know the weaknesses of every other player and team in the NHL.
Bob Gainey -- Gainey joined the Canadiens six years after Lemaire and his growth allowed Lemaire to return to a more offensive-oriented role in the final four championships the Canadiens won, from 1976-79. Gainey was not the fluid skater that Lemaire was, but he had quick feet, great anticipation, strength, indefatigable stamina and a knack for the game-turning play. He was tremendous in transition and set up more game-deciding goals than he scored. His greatness is not measured in his point totals so much as his tendency to turn games around due to his constant, effective defensive pressure. No less an authority than Soviet hockey pioneer Anatoli Tarasov called Gainey "the most complete hockey player" he'd ever seen, and Lemaire, Orr, Keon and Howe still were playing when he said it.
Pierre Pilote -- Time passes and memory fades, but Pilote was the Brian Leetch of his day, a rushing defenseman with superior skills in every aspect of the game. A high percentage of Bobby Hull's points came on give-and-goes with Pilote. The give-and-go was his signature play and contributed greatly to the Blackhawks being the only team of the era to dominate the Canadiens at their own game, firewagon hockey. His defensive skills were excellent and, much like Lidstrom, he kept the game in front of him at all times. Like everyone else on this list, his ability to anticipate what would happen next stood out among his peers.
Ray Bourque -- Bourque combined superior physicality, knowledge of opponents, skating, puckhandling and shooting skills and a drive to win with a gambler's nature. Phrases like "the exception that proves the rule" and "observed in the breach" describe Bourque, who could violate every rule of defensive play because of his skills. Bourque alone could get away with outlet passes from behind his goal line and across the front of his net to a forward on the opposite boards. I'm always reminded of Murray Baron, a fine NHL defensemen for many years, who also did this and got burned about six times as often. Bourque also was a superior physical specimen who could move every forward in the league away from his crease. Mark Messier was the only player of his generation that could force his way past Bourque at the defensive blue line.
Gordie Howe -- The most complete player in the history of the NHL when it came to strength, speed and goal-scoring and the only great "switch-hitter," something we'll never see again. A right-shooting right winger, Howe could turn the flat-bladed sticks of his time to the left side and beat NHL goalies. He was not only the strongest forward of his era, he had Lemieux's innate sense of where to shoot. On the ice, only Messier, among skilled players, could come close to the fear for their health that Howe instilled in opponents. Howe had an off-ice “aw shucks” persona that masked his study of opponent's weaknesses. Howe let his game do the talking in that regard and led his team to four Stanley Cups in six years. He won the Hart Trophy six times, second only to Gretzky.
Dave Keon -- Keon, Sakic, Robbie Ftorek and Pavel Bure all made me stop in my tracks to watch them skate the first time I saw them. Keon's fluidity and speed made him the best forechecker I've ever seen. Deep-woods mosquitoes can't match his determination. His commitment to winning was unsurpassed. He burned with a fury few players ever have brought to the NHL. Keon won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 1961, the first of six straight seasons with 20 or more goals, when that number meant a lot. He was the "final piece of the puzzle" that helped the Toronto Maple Leafs win three straight Stanley Cups and four in six years. He was one of the least penalized players ever and won two Lady Byng Trophies. After shutting down Beliveau in the 1967 Stanley Cup Final, Keon was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. He led the Maple Leafs in scoring three times and was the top goal scorer on two other occasions while shutting down other teams' best centers. If we ranked these 10, he'd be at or near the top.
Nicklas Lidstrom -- The only reason Lidstrom has won six of the past seven Norris Trophies is because he chose hockey instead of banking or politics, in which case he'd have headed Sweden's most successful bank or become Prime Minister. You only need a few minutes of conversation with him to realize that. He's absolutely brilliant and speaks English better than you do. Lidstrom is a very fluid skater who relies on his speed, stickhandling, passing, knowledge of opponents and attack angles to passively dominate the game. He probably has the lowest mistake ratio of any defenseman I've seen. He almost never makes a mistake because of his skating, knowledge and anticipation. His burning desire to win is masked by his pleasant personality and sportsmanship. If you want to teach a kid the position, have him watch Lidstrom.
Bryan Trottier -- The best skater-without-the-puck after Gretzky and a superior performer with the puck. He was a voracious student of the game and a great leader. Trottier might have had the best peripheral vision of any NHL player. He had an incredible sense of where everyone else on the ice was. He picked at every weakness. Few players could expose opponents, individual and team, as well as Trottier. He won the Calder, Hart and Conn Smythe Trophies, which means he started great, got better and dominated at the highest possible level.
So am I wrong? Have at it. Talk amongst yourselves.