When Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Pete Rose and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set their records, they were old men in their respective sports. Wayne Gretzky's chase finished before he turned 30.
Sure, hockey has changed from the days of Gordie Howe. But by the time the great records were broken, baseball, football and basketball had changed, too. Still, when they talk about Wayne Gretzky's points record, the biggest number is 780, the number of games it took him to do it. That's 44 percent of 1,767, the number of games it took Howe to set the record."I know the league has changed a little," Howe said. "The emphasis on defense has changed. In my day, any goaltender with an average over three wasn't around the next year."
The Detroit Red Wings averaged 2.6 goals a game in 1959-60, the middle of Howe's career. The Los Angeles Kings averaged 4.7 goals per game last season with Gretzky.
Gretzky idolized Howe when he was growing up. In many ways, Gretzky's a different player. Howe was better defensively; Gretzky's job has been to create, not to backcheck. Howe was a noted pugilist and pretty good with the stick; he even rapped Gretzky across the hands when their careers first crossed. Gretzky avoids confrontations. He has 364 penalty minutes in his career.
"Gordie still is the greatest in my mind," Gretzky said. "And the greatest in everyone else's mind."
Not quite. Many say Gretzky is the best. After all, he is called the Great One.
"He's just capable of so much," teammate Mike McSorley said. "You never, never turn your back or look the other way or second-guess him because he just keeps coming up with things."
No one said that about Aaron or the others when they broke their records. Gretzky is scoring points 127 percent faster than did Howe. At that pace, Gretzky would get 4,204 points if he plays the same number of games.
At that pace, Aaron would have hit 1,621 home runs in surpassing Babe Ruth's 714. Instead, he hit 755 in 895 more games.
At the Gretzky pace, Rose would have gotten 9,516 hits in surpassing Ty Cobb's total of 4,192. Rose had 4,256 in 529 more games.
Payton would have rushed for 27,948 yards (an average of 237 per game) in surpassing Jim Brown's total of 12,312. He ran for 16,726 in 72 more games.
And Abdul-Jabbar would have scored 71,321 points (a 68.2 average) in surpassing Wilt Chamberlain's total of 31,419. Instead, he had 38,387 points in 515 more games.
That puts Gretzky's achievement in a little perspective.
"Who would have thought?" said Walter Gretzky, who sired the wunderkind. "Nobody thought that even six years ago, maybe five."
But then, as Howe said, "He scored 85 more points one year than the next guy. I scored 85 one year and set a record."
Howe, who is 61, said Gretzky started the rumors that Howe might make a comeback next season. Howe has joked about it and said people shouldn't take it too seriously.
"He's so far ahead now," Howe said Sunday, "I'll never catch up anyway."