Should We Change the Way We Perceive Sports Legends?

In today’s major sports leagues, athletes are moving up the all-time standings in numerous statistical categories in their respective sports.

In today’s major sports leagues, athletes are moving up the all-time standings in numerous statistical categories in their respective sports. Consequently, fans and media personalities alike constantly compare today’s greats to legends from previous eras. However, there are numerous differences between modern and past generations of players, ranging from the improved competitive balance and rule changes in today’s leagues. As a result, the upper echelon of historic records and achievements have set an unrealistic standard for many of today’s star athletes.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is a prime example of a sports league that sets lofty standards for players, as major differences in today’s game versus past eras make certain records out of reach despite many current players being bigger, faster, and more skilled. Many of today’s NHL stars have established legendary careers themselves, earning a spot among the league’s all-time leaders in certain statistical categories. For instance, the Vegas Golden Knights Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury recently obtained his 446th career win, surpassing goaltender Terry Sawchuk to become seventh in all-time career wins for NHL goaltenders. In addition, Washington Capitals Captain Alexander Ovechkin sits at 13th place among the all-time NHL goal-scoring leaders with 661 goals racked up since his first game with the Capitals back in 2005. However, using these statistics to compare current NHL players to the legends throughout the NHL’s 100-year history is irrelevant and unfair for today’s biggest stars given the vast differences in eras. The same applies to many other major sports leagues, as extreme shifts in how each sport has been fundamentally played over various generations make it unreasonable to compare past and current stars at face value.

Total career goals scored is the most prolific statistical category in the NHL, but the top rankings are dominated by athletes who played many decades ago. For example, Wayne Gretzky, also known as the “The Great One,” famously leads the list of all-time goals scored with an incredible 894 goals accumulated over 20 seasons in the NHL. Brett Hull, 4th on the list, has 766 goals playing in the late 1980s through the early 2000s. This trend is due to current league scoring being much harder than it was 30 or even 20 years ago. This is evident given that the average amount of goals each team scored per game during the 2018 to 2019 season was 3.01 goals, in comparison to 3.74 and 3.50 in 1988 to1989 and 1978 to 1979, respectively. This dramatic shift is due to various reasons relating to rule changes and improvements in the league’s competitive balance. For one, modern goalies wear much larger pads and receive better coaching in technical skills because of improvements in technology. Another compelling reason for why the league’s best players struggle to come close to Gretzky’s production is that the skill level of the average NHL player is much higher than that of the Gretzky era. As a result, it is incredibly rare for a single player to be a team’s offensive focal point, thus preventing individuals from racking up Gretzky-esque numbers. This idea is applicable to other sports to a certain extent. Take the National Basketball Association (NBA) for example. Wilt Chamberlain, a former American basketball player, produced insane scoring output in the 1960s. Chamberlain’s records, such as scoring 100 points in a game and averaging over 50 points per game for an entire season, are nearly impossible for modern players to attain due to there being an improved standard of playing level across the league.

Although at face value players’ accomplishments from decades ago trump those of today’s stars, these past players’ circumstances were much more favorable for their accomplishments than those of modern athletes. As a result, fans should appreciate the greatness that they are witnessing across today’s major sports leagues, comparing and debating athletes’ skills level in the same era, instead of holding contemporary athletes to unfair and unrealistic standards of past legends. When modern athletes do move up the all-time rankings list though, fans must appreciate the significance of these accomplishments given how competitive many American major sports leagues have become.

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