Wayne's world

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

Who's the greatest of all time? That question is the basis of many heated sports debates -- in pubs, on sports radio call-in shows, even in locker-rooms. All this week, Sun columnist Eric Francis talks to athletes, refs, analysts and other assorted experts to gauge who are the greatest players in five sports: Golf, baseball, soccer, football and hockey. Francis might even throw in his two cents worth, too. We also want your opinions all this week -- log onto www.calgarysun.com to have your say.

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Oh sure, the older set fawns all over Gordie Howe, the youngsters idolize Mario Lemieux and the purists believe no one changed the game like Bobby Orr.

However, when Canadians in general are asked who the greatest hockey player of all time is, the most logical answer in Wayne Gretzky.

The Great One.

Owner of four Stanley Cup rings, nine Hart Trophies, 10 scoring titles and virtually every major scoring record by the time he waved goodbye in 1999, Gretzky's on-ice brilliance was matched only by his poise and class off it. Conducting himself in a manner that has always made Canadians proud, the humble kid from Brantford, Ont., never embarrassed himself, the game, his country or his family. How many people of his stature can say that?

"He understood how to play the game and he had all the talent in the world, yet he did the simplest things the best," said Hockey Night in Canada's Kelly Hrudey, who watched Gretzky elevate hockey's status in L.A. first-hand.

"He used everyone on the ice. He was a great leader -- not loud but people listened when he spoke. He had class and grace as an athlete and he was the standard to which everybody would be held to."

Canadian golfer Dick Zokol says Gretzky's greatest talent was being able to excel despite his size.

"A lesser skilled player would have been annihilated," said Zokol, pointing out that staying healthy was part of Gretzky's greatness. "Guys tried to put him through the boards but they couldn't hit him."

Roughnecks captain Tracey Kelusky simply marveled at Gretzky's leadership.

"He did everything he could to make himself and his teammates better -- he was very unselfish and was conscious of making others better," said Kelusky, pointing out the man who once scored 92 goals in a season also had 13 seasons with at least 90 assists.

Despite growing up a Flames fan and having her heart broken by Gretzky repeatedly, Olympic gold medal figure skater Jamie Sale agrees Gretzky is the best of the best. However, her husband and skating partner, David Pelletier, added Maurice Richard to an argument that generally revolves around the Fab Four.

"He was the first to score 50 goals in 50 games, the first to score 500 goals, he won eight championships, he was intimidating, he could fight and do it all," said Pelletier of the Montreal Canadiens great.

Echoing the sentiments of most Canadians, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson believes the great debate boils down to two players -- Orr and Gretzky.

"Wayne is still the most recognized person in the game and continues to do so much for it," said the man who hired Gretzky to oversee the Olympic hockey team. "But there's no question if Orr played longer ... he was the most dynamic I've ever seen."

Former Philadelphia Flyers and Calgary Flames head coach Terry Crisp played against Orr and coached against Gretzky and said he couldn't pick one over the other.

"Bobby made the rush and was the first one back to defend," said Crisp. "Gretzky, well, he was a magician."

Flames broadcaster Peter Maher breaks the debate into three categories and sees Howe as the best all around player, Gretzky as the best offensive player and Orr as the most exciting and skilled player.

"Orr did incredible things at high speed, Gretzky read the game 10 times better than anyone else and Gordie could do everything," said Maher.

Flames assistant coach Rich Preston believes Howe was the best based on his strength, longevity and ability to take care of himself.

"He was our best player in Houston and he was 46 years old," laughed Preston. "Then he went to Hartford and played in the NHL at 51 (and scored 15 goals). That says a lot."

Flames d-man Andrew Ference says his former teammate Mario Lemieux was the best because "he averaged two points a game in the modern era when the athletes were better. Mario was built for the game. Gretzky couldn't carry three defenders on his back and have a physical presence."

It's about the only thing he couldn't do.


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