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Posted: Thursday July 9, 2009 10:26AM; Updated: Tuesday July 21, 2009 12:45PM
Michael Farber Michael Farber >
INSIDE THE NHL

Thrill List: Hockey

Story Highlights

Bobby Orr is the most iconic defenseman in hockey's long history

Before the TV era, Maurice Richard was still known in every Montreal household

Today, Alexander Ovechkin makes Caps worth paying to see

ovechkin.jpg
Alexander Ovechkin led the Capitals with 56 goals last season.
Lou Capozzola/SI

These lists are not mere compilations of all-time bests in their respective sports but all-time bests at quickening the pulse and evoking a visceral response from those fortunate enough to have witnessed their artistry.

10. Mario Lemieux

The icon of Pittsburgh's 1991 and '92 Stanley Cup champions did not have speed. But even without that fundamental building block of excitement, he was thrilling because of his unique ability to take time and make it stand still. He would play the game to his whims; others on the ice would be obliged to follow because Lemieux usually had the puck on his stick. He was remarkably nifty, able to dangle around defensemen with his long reach. Lemieux was a threat to score every time he hopped over the boards.

9. Dominik Hasek

A goaltender? Sure. Hasek was from the Czech Republic but he probably vacationed on Mars. For 16 seasons beginning in 1990, he tended the nets like an extraterrestrial, playing a style that had its own internal logic even if the rest of the world had no idea what he was doing. The Dominator was as flexible as Gumby, flailing about, head-butting shots away, dropping his stick, cartwheeling his legs, looking at times like a child having a tantrum. Nor should you forget his puckhandling ability: He stunk, which made it thrilling. When Hasek came out to play the puck, which he often did because he would get bored in his crease, he had more adventures than Lewis and Clark.

8. Paul Coffey

On the dynastic 1980s Oilers of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier -- both worthy candidates for the list, incidentally -- Coffey was the greatest show on blades. Although he was not remotely as sound a defenseman as Bobby Orr, his graceful skating separated him from every other blueliner. A superb freelancer, Coffey did not skate as much as he hovered around the ice, covering three zones in what appeared to be three strides. As his career evolved, he became one of those defensemen who would give both teams a chance to win, but in his prime there was no backliner who quickened the pulse like Coffey.

7. Pavel Bure

The Russian Rocket is the most renowned space vehicle from that country since Sputnik. There probably have been faster skaters in hockey history, but it is doubtful that anyone ever skated faster with the puck on his stick. The explosive, elusive Bure, who spent most of his 16 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, could jitterbug the length of the ice and score newsworthy goals even at a time when the NHL was about to plunge into the creative darkness of the Dead Puck Era. As with Sandy Koufax, an injury -- in Bure's case, a knee -- prematurely ended the career of a player who was the ultimate eye candy of the 1990s.

6. Guy Lafleur

Among his nicknames was "The Demon Blond" although, to be honest, The Flower's thin hair was more sandy than it was a Debbie Harry hue. But whatever the shade on the artist's palette, Lafleur drew the eye to his on-ice creations because that hair really did flow as he burst down the wing, ready to juke and go to the net or unleash a slapper. A player with Úlan, he epitomized Montreal's grand Flying Frenchmen of the late 1970s.

5. Gilbert Perreault

Perreault's gift was his skating -- a swooping and powerful stride that came from his impossibly strong hockey haunches. He would stickhandle into the offensive zone and curl 10 feet inside the blue line; the unfortunate defenseman trying to cover him would be 10 feet away because Perreault's stride had provided that much separation. Given the time and space he had created with his skating, Perreault could shoot or dish, thus making stars of Rick Martin and Rene Robert, his 1970s French Connection linemates with the Buffalo Sabres. If Perreault had played in a larger market -- or won a Stanley Cup -- his skills would have been appreciated as much as those of Montreal's Guy Lafleur.

4. Bobby Hull

The most heart-pounding moments in the mid-1960s occurred when the Chicago Blackhawks' Golden Jet took a typically nifty pass from center Stan Mikita and barreled down the wing. He was not a shake-and-bake winger but a menacing force of nature whose slapshot could take an (unmasked) goalie's head off. Hull was among the first to use a severely curved blade; everybody who bought tickets to raucous Chicago Stadium to witness the early advance in hockey technology can only say, "Thank you."

3. Alexander Ovechkin

You watch Ovechkin every night and figure his most spectacular goal will be the next one. The Capitals' star scored from his seat against Phoenix in 2006, but he notched an even prettier goal against Montreal in 2009 when he passed to himself off the boards, spun around defenseman Roman Hamrlik, went backhand to forehand, beat another defender and scored by chipping the puck over the goalie while practically prone on the ice. This was the first time in NHL history a player deserved an assist on his own goal. His eagerness to throw big hits and his animated goal celebrations make him worth the price of admission, even among the it's-free-it's-me YouTube generation.

2. Maurice Richard

Richard is a testament to the printed word. Like Ted Williams, he is among the last heroes whose career was largely chronicled in black-and-white newsprint. Not every household in Montreal had a television by the time he retired in 1960 after 15 seasons, but there is not one Montrealer who did not know about the Rocket's fiery eyes as he bore in on the helpless goalie. From the blue line in, there was no player as dazzling and determined as the 544-goal legend.

1. Bobby Orr

Hockey's iconic image is Orr flying through the air after being tripped following his 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal. The photograph would suggest Orr was Superman. Well, he was. He was also Batman, Spiderman and every other superhero in the Marvel Comics stable. Orr would take the puck behind the Boston Bruins' net, wheel through his defensive zone and stickhandle his way 180 feet down the ice. He went coast-to-coast better than United Airlines. The all-time edge-of-your-seater wasn't the first rushing defenseman. He was merely the best.

Agree or disagree with Farber's selections? Weigh in here.

 
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