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Sports Let us not forget the feats of ‘Phantom Joe’ Malone when discussing the greatest hockey goal-scorers

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

At least you’re fully living up to your moniker – Phantom Joe – as the name Joe Malone is nowhere to be found in the runaway chatter over who is the greatest scorer in hockey history.

That would be you, of course. In the NHL’s very first season you potted 44 goals in only 20 games, a record that stood for 28 seasons and was only eclipsed during the watered-down war years when Maurice (Rocket) Richard scored 50 goals … albeit in 50 games, more than twice as many games as you played in 1917. No one will ever come close to your 2.2 goals-a-game average. In today’s NHL, that would require 180.4 goals in a single NHL season.

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And that’s not even mentioning the 14-game goal-scoring streak, or record of seven goals in a single game, which still stands.

Yet not so much as a peep about the incredible feats of Joe Malone as newspaper columnists, sports talk shows and the Twitter-verse go wild over December’s all-consuming hockey question: Is Alexander Ovechkin the greatest goal scorer hockey has ever seen?

Alex Ovechkin has 'furthered his case to be heralded the greatest goal scorer of all time,' The Hockey News wrote recently.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Hockey News, which prides itself on being “the Bible of Hockey,” certainly thinks it possible. After the Washington Capitals captain posted back-to-back hat tricks for the second time this season – Joe Malone, it might be pointed out, holds the NHL record with four – the publication’s esteemed Ken Campbell wrote that Ovechkin has “furthered his case to be heralded the greatest goal scorer of all time.”

And Campbell was hardly alone. Pick up the Toronto Star or the Winnipeg Sun, tune in to ESPN or sports talk radio for variations on the same theme: Alexander Ovechkin stands with the gods, if he is not the Supreme Ruler himself.

This year has seen a remarkable reputation makeover for the Russian star. Always seen as a great goal scorer, he was never regarded as a champion. His teams fizzled in the playoffs, crashed at the Olympics. The Stanley Cup changed all that in an instant.

Now he is a certified champion. The 13-year, US$124-million contract that caused eyes to roll and heads to shake back in 2008 is now considered one of the smartest moves made by Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

“Do I have any regrets,” Leonsis last spring. “Yeah, my regret is it wasn’t a 15-year contract.”

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At the advanced hockey age of 33, Ovechkin could be having the best season of his career – and this after bingeing all summer long with the Stanley Cup he won in June. With 29 goals in 33 games heading into Friday’s home game against the Buffalo Sabres (the Capitals fly to Ottawa to play the Senators on Saturday) he is well on his way to leading the league in goals for the eighth time in his career, more than any other player has managed.

The great Bobby Hull did it seven times. Ovechkin also recently passed Hull in total NHL goals and will soon be within 100 goals of catching Bobby’s son, Brett, who ended his career with 741 goals. He may reach that. But can he catch Jaromir Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801) or, gulp, Wayne Gretzky (894)?

Such discussions are fraught with asterisks. Bobby Hull, Howe and even Gretzky all scored goals with the World Hockey Association, a league rather unfairly dismissed as inferior by the NHL when they were rivals. Jagr spent two years playing for Avangard Omsk of the KHL before returning to the NHL.

And what about Mike Bossy, who leads all modern NHLers in goals per game (.762), who scored 60 or more goals five times and 50 or more goals in every season but his last – but whose career lasted only 10 seasons because of a wonky back?

There is also the issue of eras. Bobby Hull and Howe played at a time when shifts went on forever, when a player could actually carry a puck from one end to the other. Gretzky played on a team of superstars (Mark Messier, Paul Coffey) and had enforcers (Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley) to ensure freedom of movement.

Ovechkin, contrary to the other giants, plays in an era of overcoaching, mini-shifts, giant goaltenders and team shot blocking. It is no surprise that the goal scorers who are most noted today – Ovechkin, Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine, Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos – share an ability to release pucks instantly with incredible force and accuracy. It is virtually impossible to score the Bobby Hull and Guy Lafleur goals that are frozen in hockey memory.

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In the end, it’s futile to believe it possible to say who was or is the greatest of all. Campbell has it right when he says of Ovechkin, “Regardless of with what total he finishes, he’s already proved to the hockey world that he belongs with Gretzky and Howe when it comes to the game’s all-time great players at putting the puck in the back of the net.”

As for poor Phantom Joe, now so completely forgotten, he would like only to point out one small thing in his own favour.

Long before anyone sent Bobby or Brett Hull, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy or even Rocket Richard himself up the ice with the perfect pass leading to the highlight goal, Joe scored his 44 goals in 20 games in 1917.

That would be 12 years before the NHL allowed forward passing in all three zones. The reason for the rule change? To combat low-scoring games.

Sadly, Phantom Joe Malone was already retired five seasons by then.

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