With no preamble whatsoever, and at about the same split second that my bum hit the chair, Paddy said, “I’ve got some tough hockey questions for you.”
“Good,” I replied, “I love hockey questions, even tough ones”
“Well...” Paddy hesitated long enough to take a sip of coffee and then went on, “who’s the best player you ever saw?”
“That’s easy,” I said, “Bobby Orr.”
“Better than Gretzky or Lemieux?” he challenged.
“How can you possibly say Orr was better than Gretzky or Lemieux?” growled Paddy.
“First of all,” I said, “Gretzky and Lemieux were one-dimensional players. Orr did it all. There was no aspect of the game that he didn’t dominate. And he could do everything at top speed. I remember Gordie Howe being asked how fast Orr was. Howe answered, ‘We don’t know; he hasn’t been in danger of being caught yet.’ ”
Paddy, having just taken another mouthful of coffee, didn’t have a chance to say anything else before I added, “And consider this. Until his knees gave out, he was, at the same time, both the best offensive and defensive player in the game. No other player has ever accomplished that.”
Well,” said Paddy, “I guess that makes him the best defenseman for sure. So, who was the best forward you every saw?”
“Gordie Howe.” I replied.
“Good God in heaven!” Paddy shrieked, “How in hell can you put Howe ahead of Gretzky and Lemieux?”
“I love the way you segued from hell to heaven in the same short sentence, Paddy,” I said, “but, I repeat, Gretzky and Lemieux were one-dimensional players. Howe was very much like Orr. Even if he couldn’t do everything at Orr’s speed, he could still do it all. And Orr was faster than Howe.”
“So, you’re telling me,” Paddy said, “that if you could choose only two players you would take Orr and Howe?”
“Not at all,” I said, “if I could choose only two players I would take Orr and Gretzky.”
“That makes no sense, you’re trying to disappear up your own armpit,” opined Paddy, very close to shrieking again, “you say Orr was the best player you ever saw and that Howe was the best forward you ever saw, but if you could pick only two players it would be Orr and Gretzky!”
“Yes,” I explained, “if I had Orr and Howe, I would have the two best all-round players I ever saw. But I’d have two very similar players. On the other hand, with Orr and Gretzky I would have the best all-round player ever and the best scorer ever.”
“Aha,” snorted Paddy, “so you concede that Gretzky was a better scorer than Orr.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “I never said he wasn’t.”
Paddy wasn’t about to give up, “So, if Gretzky was a better scorer than Orr, how can you say that Orr was both the best offensive and defensive player?”
“Because,” I said, “they didn’t play at the same time. What I said was that Orr, was, at the same time, both the best offensive and defensive player in the league. Had they both played at the same time, Gretzky would have been the best offensive player while Orr would have been the best defensive player as well as the best all-round player, which, to me, makes Orr the best player ever.”
“Let’s move on,” Paddy suggested, “who’s the best goalie you’ve seen.”
“Flip a coin between Hall and Sawchuk,” I replied.
“Round out the top five,” Paddy demanded.
“Brodeur, Plante and Roy,” I responded.
“What about Broda and Durnan?” Paddy asked.
“I never saw them play,” I told him, “but many old timers I’ve talked to rate Durnan as one of the best. Frank Selke told me Broda was the best playoff goalie he ever saw, and he’s seen a lot of them.”
Paddy, who knows absolutely nothing about goaltending, chose to neither argue nor seek explanations. This was a good thing, because who’s the best goaltender is probably the most futile of all hockey arguments. It’s like two bald guys fighting over a comb.
“Who was the hardest body checker you saw?” was Paddy’s next category.
“Bill Ezinicki,” I said, “with Denis Potvin not far behind.”
“OK,” said Paddy, “I need another explanation. I barely remember Ezinicki, but I know he could hit hard. But why put him and Potvin ahead of Scott Stevens? Stevens probably concussed more players than any other three guys put together.”
“Because,” I explained, “Stevens usually had to catch guys unaware to deliver his most devastating checks. Both Ezinicki and Potvin had players crawling to the bench after open-ice hits that they saw coming but still couldn’t do anything about.”
Paddy said nothing so I went on, “But, surprisingly, the two hardest clean hits I ever saw weren’t delivered by Ezinicki, Potvin or Stevens.”
“Do tell,” Paddy urged.
“The hardest happened at the tail end of the 1954-55 season at Maple Leaf Gardens. Bill Gadsby of the Rangers caught Tim Horton rushing with his head down near center ice. I was away up in the cheap seats but I could still hear the bones crunching. Horton had a broken jaw and a broken leg. The second was also at Maple Leaf Gardens. In 1971 or 1972. Billy MacMillan caught Don Awrey with his head down, again on open ice, and laid a shoulder into his chest. Awrey didn’t have any broken bones but I’m sure he had trouble breathing for awhile.”
“What about the hardest shot?” was Paddy’s next query.
“Al MacInnis,” I answered confidently. I guess Paddy agreed because he didn’t ask for an explanation.
He then got a little more personal by asking, “Who was the best player you ever played against?”
“I played one exhibition game against Frank Mahovlich,” I answered, “I played against Dave Keon in Junior B. I also played against two great goalies in Junior B: Gerry Cheevers and Dennis DeJordy.”
“Who was the best you played with?” was Paddy’s next question.
“A two-way tie,” I said, “Barry Ashby, with Lakeshore Bruins in Junior B, and Billy MacMillan with the Charlottetown Royals in Senior hockey.”
“The same Billy MacMillan that levelled Don Awrey?” asked Paddy.
“The very same,” I told him.
“Then, could you possibly be biased about the second hardest hit?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
Paddy got up and left.