By Sean Graham
One of the great things about sports is the ability to argue passionately and vehemently about subjective things that, ultimately, don’t matter. Would you rather a defensive stalwart who can’t score or a gifted offensive player who is a turnstile on defense? Did a coach make the right decision in switching lines down the stretch? And, of course, most debated question across all sports: who is the greatest player of all time?
One of the things that makes that question so tough is that comparing players across eras is nearly impossible. In the NHL, for instance, the 1980s saw a scoring surge while the mid-1990s were notorious for low-scoring plodding games (See: Devils, New Jersey). So how do we assess goalies who played in these eras? Could a 1980s goalie with a higher goals against average than a 1990s goalie be considered a better player?
A popular off-shoot of the greatest player debate is the greatest team debate. Teams like the 1985 Chicago Bears, 1927 New York Yankees, 1980s Boston Celtics, and 1976 Montreal Canadiens have become mythic within the canon of their respective sports, but definitively knowing who is the greatest is impossible to know.
Fortunately, there are simulators available that attempt to settle these long-standing debates. To put these programs to the test, I asked History Slam veterans Aaron Boyes, Jeremy Garrett, Mike Thompson, and Pat Fournier to put together a roster for what they would consider to be the greatest NHL team of all time. Each person selected 11 players for their teams, which I then put into a 30-game simulated season, the results of which were at times what I expected and, in a couple cases, shocking.
In this episode of the History Slam, Aaron, Jeremy, and Mike pick their teams and defend their selections. After I describe Pat’s team, I reveal the results and we discuss what attributes are common among great players, how to compare players across eras, and the role of sports in our daily lives.
As an additional note, the History Slam will be shifting to a weekly schedule for as long as it takes for life to return to some semblance of normalcy. We have some episodes ready to go, but if you have ideas/suggestions for what you would like to hear during this time, please let me know. You can get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @drseannyfever
Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca