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Wayne Gretzky thankful he played during the NHL’s wide-open scoring days

Wayne Gretzky doesn’t think he would have been as great of a hockey player in the 1950s.

He’s not being humble. More like fearful.

Yes, the greatest goal scorer who ever played the game would no doubt have had an easier time putting the puck past goalies who didn’t wear masks and rarely left their feet to make a save. But that’s assuming he could make it up the ice in one piece.

“The (Gordie) Howes and (Maurice) Richards typically had to fight for themselves,” Gretzky said in a phone interview. “That was the game back then. When you’re 150 pounds, that would have been more difficult for me. I’m always the first guy to sit here and say I came around at the right time. It was a different game.”

The topic of the sport’s so-called good old days has come up because on Thursday the NHL is releasing a feature-length documentary on the rich and storied history of the league. Narrated by actor Jon Hamm and broadcast on Sportsnet on Thursday, NHL: 100 Years takes viewers on a voyage of how the NHL was founded, the glory days of the Original Six franchises, the growth of the expansion era and the effects of the game globally.

It’s a lot to jam into just a couple of hours, especially for a sport that has undergone such massive changes over the years. Hockey isn’t baseball. From the rules and the equipment to the size and scope of the league, the early days bare little resemblance to how the game is played today. And that’s the beauty of it.

“I don’t know if everybody appreciates what went on to grow the game in those early years and how different it was,” said Steve Mayer, who produced the documentary. “Every sport has its differences, but for whatever reason there were some real significant differences in hockey.”

The thing that amazes Gretzky is how much more difficult it was to break into the league back then. With six teams and around 18 players per team, jobs were limited. You had to wait for an injury or for a player to get a shot, which might explain why Hall of Fame goalie Johnny Bower spent nine years in the American Hockey League before making his mark in the NHL.

“It was a completely different game back then,” Gretzky said. “The skates — my goodness — the skates that (Jean) Beliveau and Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr wore were basically running shoes with a blade on the bottom and those guys were fantastic skaters. Imagine if those guys had an opportunity to wear the skates that we have today? It would be interesting to see how good these guys really are.”

Gretzky spoke to Postmedia News about why 50 goals in 50 games is practically impossible, why star players have to play with other star players and why the Edmonton Oilers’ season is far from over:

Gretzky cleared the path for Auston Matthews

Part of the reason why Auston Matthews made the seamless jump to the NHL last season was that he spent his draft year playing professionally in Switzerland. Thirty-seven years earlier, Gretzky forged a similar path, playing in the World Hockey Association as a 17-year-old.

“The year I spent in the WHA was such a great year for me, because it wasn’t as good as the NHL but it was better than junior hockey, so it gave me sort of that year of playing against men and learning how to travel like the men did and play in a league that was relatively good and had a lot of good players. That really helped me in making the next step.”

50 in 50 is practically impossible

With 17 goals in 20 games, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov has a chance at becoming the first player since Brett Hull in 1991-92 to score 50 goals in 50 games. Gretzky, who accomplished the feat three times, is rooting for Kucherov, even though he is realistic about just how difficult it is to do.

“The goalies are bigger, the equipment is better, the goalies are more athletic now,” Gretzky said. “Guys like Patrick Roy, Marty Brodeur and Grant Fuhr changed the position in goal from being the slow guy on your team to being the best athlete. It’s hard to score 50 goals. I think any time there’s talk of it, it’s positive for the game and great for the sport.”

Connor McDavid needs a running mate

A big reason for Kucherov’s success this season is because he’s playing on a line with Steven Stamkos, who leads the league with 25 assists and 35 points. You need two — sometimes three — players to work together for one of them to win a scoring title. It’s why nine of the top 10 scorers have a linemate also in the top 20. The exception is McDavid, who has 11 more points than the next Oilers player.

“That’s never changed,” Gretzky said. “You go back to Gilbert Perrault and Rick Martin, or Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay or Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. The game is too hard to do it by yourself. You have to have that guy that’s a good player, but more importantly who you’re compatible with and you have that second nature and instinct. That’s what tandems do in order get to another level.”

McDavid and Matthews are this generation’s Gretzky and Messier

Gretzky won’t say whether McDavid or Matthews is the better player, partly because they are so different. Matthews is a goal scorer, while McDavid is a playmaker. Both are dominant and yet rely on different tools to get the job done.

“In my mind, they don’t play the same style of game,” Gretzky said. “Auston’s stronger in terms of a power forward, kind of like myself and Mark Messier. Mark was stronger and obviously more physically capable. But what they have in common is everything that Hall of Fame players have in common, which is that burning desire to compete.”

The Oilers season is far from over

As we approach U.S. Thanksgiving, the Oilers have the second-worst record in the Western Conference. A year ago, 13 of the 16 teams that were in a playoff spot remained that way at the end of the season. But Gretzky believes the Oilers could be one of the exceptions.

“Obviously the entire city and the organization is trying to put their thumb on this to figure out a way to get out of the funk that the team is in,” said Gretzky, who is a partner and vice-chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group. “Listen, it’s a long year and it’s a young team that desperately works hard, they practice hard and they’re well-coached. It’s a matter of putting that all together. They’ll figure this out and they’ll come out of this fine. It will probably make them a closer team.”

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