Maurice "Rocket" Richard remains the answer to many trivia questions - such as "Does clutch exist?" :) - but at this distance it's hard to get a true handle on his greatness. The Rocket retired 50 years ago, and even a geezer like me who's been watching the game almost forever never had a chance to see him play. How to judge his career?
One problem is that the goalposts keep changing. For example, the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP didn't exist during Richard's legendary career. How many Smythes would he have won? The statistical record suggests the Rocket would have been a very strong candidate in 1944 (his 12 goals held up as an NHL record until expansion), 1951 (no Cup, but three overtime winners among his league-leading 9 playoff goals), and 1958 (11 goals in 10 games). But statistical records are not eyewitnesses, and we don't have the collected opinions of those who watched the games to determine the Rocket's relative contribution compared to, say, teammates Toe Blake and Bill Durnan in '44; Cup champs Max Bentley, Turk Broda and Bill Barilko in '51; or playoff scoring leader Fleming Mackell and Habs' on-ice general Doug Harvey in '58. So the best we're left with is a bunch of maybes.
For all the new trophies that have been added over the years, there is exactly one whose "winners" can be confidently projected back through the history of the game. That would be ... drum roll ... the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy, awarded since 1998-99 to the NHL's top goal scorer(s). The only peers doing the "voting" were fellow goal scorers, and the results ARE a matter of statistical record. Thus it is a simple matter to determine who would have won the Rocket before 1998, all the way back to 1917. Let's call them the Retro Rockets. :)
Era effects are eliminated in the one sense - it doesn't matter whether a player scored 22 goals or 92, only whether he led the league. "How many" don't enter into it. However, a different sort of era effect is very much present, namely who the competition was during a given player's career.
Unlike the Art Ross Trophy, there are no tie-breakers to determine a single winner of the Rocket ... being introduced during the Bettman Era, it figures that a tie would be as good as a win. So we'll apply those same standards across the years. Over the 92 seasons of the NHL, 55 different players have led the league in goals, on a total of 104 occasions. Let's check out the 22 famous names who led the league in snipes on multiple occasions.
|( * - Hockey Hall of Fame)|
Bobby Hull stands alone with 7 Retro Rockets, all earned in the 60s when he was the dominant scorer in the NHL for a full decade. During that ten-year span, 1959-69, Hull's 441 goals far outstripped Gordie Howe's 314 and Frank Mahovlich's 309. The Golden Jet further won another goal-scoring crown in the WHA in 1974-75 with a record 77 counters, thus becoming the only player in history to lead both leagues.
Phil Esposito's 6 titles are notable in that they occurred in consecutive seasons. While much of the credit for the Boston scoring machine is attributed to Espo's running mate Bobby Orr, the big man from "the Soo" filled the net at an unprecedented rate. From 1969-75 Esposito averaged over 60 goals per season when no other player averaged as many as 40. It's interesting to note that Espo's period of domination occurred directly after Hull's run - in fact the two overlapped to a certain degree, having been linemates in Chicago in the mid-60s. Each finished second behind the other on one occasion.
The group of four players tied with 5 goal-scoring crowns apiece are enough to set a hockey historian's heart all aflutter: the Big Bomber, the Rocket himself, Mister Hockey, the Great One. Both Conacher (1930-36) and Gretzky (1981-87) won their 5 titles in a 6-year span, a relatively short period of domination. Richard and Howe both spread their titles out over a period of longer than a decade, often trading the crown between them, as they finished 1-2 in the NHL on no fewer than four separate occasions (two titles and two runners-up each). Separated by some 6½ years, they weren't exact contemporaries, but certainly were the league's top snipers for an extended period. Check out this list covering the two decades 1943-63 between the Rocket's rookie season and the Gord's last goal-scoring crown.
No other player has won more than 3 Retro Rockets, including modern stars Teemu Selanne and Pavel Bure who were the first recipients of the actual Richard Trophy, in 1999 and 2000 respectively. They are the only two of the dozen three-plus-time winners who are not in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hard to imagine Selanne won't be there on the first ballot in four or so years, but whither Bure? He's been eligible for awhile, and this achievement alone should put him on the very short list of worthy HHoF candidates.
A similar, if weaker case can be made for Peter Bondra, who is the only two-time winner who is HHoF-eligible but remains on the outside looking in. In all 17 of the 22 multiple winners are in the Hall, while three more are active players who are odds-on favourites to make it in the near future. Only Bure and Bondra are on the bubble.
Of particular interest among the ten dual winners is Nels Stewart, whose two league-leading seasons occurred a dozen years apart, a wider span between first and last than all but Gordie Howe. "Old Poison" was no match for Conacher's five Retro Rockets, but his longevity as a consistent producer throughout that period (1925-37) and beyond explains why he retired as the NHL's all-time goal-scoring leader. Stewart's record of 324 career tallies would ultimately be eclipsed by the Rocket himself.
Finally, here are the names - from Newsy to Sid the Kid - of those 33 players who have led (or co-led) the NHL in scoring exactly once:
Trivia time for Oilers fans: On the immediately above list of single Retro Rockets, three played at some point in their careers for the Edmonton Oilers, and two played for the Edmonton Flyers. Name them.