Lining Up Hockey’s Best Forwards

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - December 20, 2006
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Sometimes the best ideas are the ones worth stealing.

ESPN.com is looking for the top front lines in NHL history. This is not, as it would seem, a time to choose between Detroit’s Production Line and the Rangers GAG Line, but to create four lines from the list of players given. So if you want a group of Stan Makita, Ted Lindsey and Peter Forsberg, then simply drop the names down.

The list is not perfect. Among the 50 names that appear are youngsters like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovenchkin. Two great players, but they lack the experience to be on any all-time list. But that’s a minor fault.


Here’s one person’s shabby attempt at hockey history.

First Line

While a first thought may be to load this slot with the three biggest studs or attempt to assemble a trio of complementary players, we’re taking a different route. It’s not just scoring we want, we want to score with style. The left wing lock be damned, we’re here to blow past the competition - and rearrange positions to suit us.

With 61 records held or tied and with more goals and assists then anyone, Wayne Gretzky centers our first line. Good thing for his wingers Maurice Richard and Bobby Hull.

Anchoring Montreal’s feared Punch Line along with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake, Richard was the game’s first 50-goal scorer and was a blistering playmaker who even piled up 1,285 penalty minutes.

Teaming The Rocket with The Golden Jet, Hull, who is often considered the greatest left wing in history, and we’ve got a line to get excited about. Hull’s combination of blazing speed and terrifying slapshot would be the perfect complement to his high-scoring line-mates.

Second Line

Where the first unit was set up to fly past its opponents, the second line is designed to go right through them. Although a true tough guy trio of Dave “Tiger” Williams, Marty McSorley and Bob Probert - a combined 10,647 penalty minutes - would be a proud addition to any Broadstreet Bully-style line, we’d still like to score now and then. Leading from the right wing is Mr. Hockey himself. Thirty-two years as a pro, second in goals, third in scoring and the namesake of hockey’s most infamous mark, the Gordie Howe hat trick - a goal, an assist and a fight - he was simply the perfect blend of toughness and talent.


On Gordie’s left is a 6-foot-4-inch center who tipped the scales at 230 pounds and may have been, if healthy, even better than Gretzky. As it was, Mario Lemieux finished seventh all time in scoring and simply saved a franchise.

Picking the final big bodied forward was tough with big scorers like Brendan Shanahan (6-3, 230), Eric Lindros (6-4, 240) and Jaromir Jagr (6-4, 230) to choose from. A long history of injuries keeps Lindros off the list, and Jagr (605 goals, 871 assists and a plus 241) slides him past Shanahan (615 goals, 645 assists, plus 146). Jagr is also a five-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy (leading scorer). However, Shanahan’s 2,400 penalty minutes are tempting.

Third Line

While every sport has someone who carries the “captain” label, only in the NHL does it really mean something. The captain on a hockey team is like an extra coach, and they’ve supplied us with some of the very best. Known simply as “The Captain,” Steve Yzerman put the C on his Detroit sweater in 1986 and did not give it up until he retired 19 years later. He was one of the game’s best scorers (sixth) but embraced defense to win three crowns and redefined what it means to play hurt.

Where Stevie Y’s leadership was quiet, right-winger Mark Messier was more demonstrative. He ruled the locker room by example and fear, even when playing with The Great One in Edmonton. Add to that six Stanley Cups and 1,887 points - second all time - and you’ve got yourself one hell of a rallying point.

If this list included defense-men, Bobby Orr would be at the top. But since he’s excluded, his teammate, Phil Esposito, takes over. This is no gift. The Hall of Famer led the NHL in scoring five times and won two Hart Trophies (MVP). After retiring as a player he became the coach and general manager of the New York Rangers and founded the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Fourth Line

We’re going back in time. This is our old school line. Back to the days of no helmets, few pads, slower skating - necessary because teams didn’t substitute like today - and toughness: men who began their careers prior to the mid-point of the century and when a 50-point season was a rarity.

Ted Lindsay began his career in Detroit in 1944 and finished with a Hall of Fame induction, 851 points and 1,808 penalty minutes in 1,068 games. Great accomplishments, but the real reason he’s at center ice was that in 1957 he helped create the NHL’s Players Association. Hockey News also ranked him 27th among the top 100 players of all time.

Skating down the right side is Milt Schmidt (1936-1945).

Winner of the Hart and Art Ross trophies, Schmidt, who missed three-and-a-half seasons to World War II, still managed to total 575 points while piling up a list of injuries that would send most to retirement. These include a broken jaw, torn cartilage in his ribs and ligament damage to both knees - most of these at the hands of his opponents.

Called “the Babe Ruth of hockey,” Howie Morenz was the NHL’s first true star. Like other 1920s legends, Bill Tilden, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey and the aforementioned Ruth, Morenz thrilled fans with an electrifying style of play that up until that time had not been seen. He won three MVPs and Stanley Cups, two Art Ross Trophies and was a talented defensive player. In 1950 he was name the outstanding hockey player in the first half of the century.

So who did we miss? You can make a few good lines out of those not included: Ron Francis, Mikita, Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur, Sid Abel, Denis Savard, Shanahan, Jari Kurri, Jean Beliveau, Forsbeg and Brett Hull. Slide in others if you like.

Let’s see how we do.

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