No. 9 is now No. 3.
Or, well, he will be. Soon enough — possibly Monday night when the Detroit Red Wings visit the Washington Capitals — Alex Ovechkin will score for the 801st and 802nd time and pass Gordie Howe for No. 2 on the NHL’s all-time goals list.
Ovechkin already moved Mr. Hockey down one big list earlier this season; his second-period goal Nov. 5 against the Arizona Coyotes was No. 787 in his 18-season tenure with the Caps, one more than Howe scored in his 25 seasons with the Wings, to set the NHL’s record for goals with a single franchise.
Now he’s coming after Howe for No. 2 in career goals, and, of course, Wayne Gretzky at No. 1, eventually. (We’ve got a couple of years before Ovi catches The Great One — at least, we think we do.)
But before Ovechkin fully rewrites the record book, let’s take a look at how he doesn’t quite match up with the NHL’s greatest scorers. (At least, not yet….)
One goal to rule them all
Before we get there, we’ve gotta go over the NHL’s career scoring leaders through the years, all the way past the Original Six years and to, uh, the “In-Between Eight” years — back when the NHL had the Original Six we know and (mostly) love, plus second franchises in Montreal (the Maroons) and New York (the Americans). (Don’t worry — there have only been four leaders over the past 85 years.)
On Feb. 16, 1937, Nels Stewart, playing for those Americans, scored career goal No. 272 in the second period against the Canadiens to pass the Habs’ Howie Morenz for No. 1 on the NHL’s list, which, to be fair, was only about 20 years old at the time. Stewart added 52 more goals over three more seasons to finish with 324 goals — the final score coming March 16, 1940, more than two months after No. 323 — a record that would stand until Nov. 8, 1952, in Montreal. (See, we’re already back to the Original Six era!)
That was the day the Canadiens’ Maurice “Rocket” Richard put a backhander from the slot past Chicago Black Hawks goalie Al Rollins — goal No. 325 — in a 6-4 victory. Oh, but Richard wasn’t done there; he tacked on another 219 goals over the next 7½ seasons, including a score in his finale March 20, 1960, to wind up with 544. There’s a reason the NHL’s yearly scoring award is named after Richard; when he retired, he had a 179-goal lead on the league’s No. 3 career scorer (Ted Lindsay) and a 98-goal lead on the all-time No. 2.
That would be, of course, Howe; Mr. Hockey had 446 regular-season goals at the time of Richard’s retirement. Howe, 31, had just finished his 14th NHL season. It took him another three full seasons to get within striking range of Richard; he tied him six games into the 1963-64 season, against Montreal (of course) at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. It then took another excruciating five scoreless games (hampered by a cut on his ankle suffered a month earlier) before he lit the lamp again, finally scoring No. 545 against Montreal (again, of course) in Detroit on Nov. 10, 1963.
He drilled a low shot that “never got more than an inch off the ice” as it squeezed between Habs goalie Charley Hodge late in the second period. Howe’s postgame reaction wasn’t exactly elation, however: “Now I can start enjoying life again,” he told the press gathered in the locker room for his response. “That one had to go in.” Why? “Because I’m about 10 points behind where I should be.”
Howe went scoreless over his next seven games, but the touch returned eventually and he scored 241 more goals over 7 ½ more seasons to finish with 786 goals as a Red Wing; his final score wearing the Winged Wheel came April 3, 1971 in the second period against the Black Hawks. At the time, Howe had a 232-goal lead on the No. 2 all-time scorer, Bobby Hull. (The longtime Black Hawk would play another season in the NHL, getting to 604 goals before defecting to the rival World Hockey Association … but we’ll get to him soon enough.)
That lead was sizable enough to hold up for another 7½ years, until Oct. 13, 1979, when goal No. 787 was scored by … well … Howe. His retirement hadn’t exactly been peaceable, even at age 42, and when the WHA’s Houston Aeros offered him the chance to play with sons Mark and Marty, he broke out the skates and played six more seasons with the Aeros and New England Whalers. Eventually, the Whalers were one of four WHA teams accepted as expansion squads for the 1979-80 season, bringing Mr. Hockey back into the NHL. Howe scored in his second game back — against Pittsburgh at 51 years, 196 days old — and added 14 more wearing green, blue and white.
Goal No. 801 (after an 18-game drought) came April 6, 1980 in Hartford, Connecticut, in the Whalers’ season finale against — you guessed it — the Red Wings. Howe retired for the second time with a 91-goal lead on the No. 2 scorer, Phil Esposito. (Hull had also returned to the NHL in the 1979-80 season; he picked up seven goals in 27 games with Hartford and Winnipeg to finish at 610.)
Esposito had only one more season left, with just seven goals. But the NHL’s future all-time goals leader was already in the league; Gretzky scored 51 goals in the debut NHL season for him and the Edmonton Oilers (another WHA refugee). It was the first of 12 consecutive NHL seasons with at least 40 goals, including a stretch of four straight with at least 70 goals. Gretzky needed just 14 seasons to go from zero NHL goals to passing Howe with a power-play tally for No. 802 14:47 into the second period of the L.A. Kings’ 6-4 loss to Vancouver on March 23, 1994. Gretzky and the NHL were already slowing down; that 1993-94 season was his last with more than 30 goals, and the next season would see the New Jersey Devils sweep the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals with their defensive system that depressed scoring totals (and fans outside of New Jersey) for more than a decade.
Gretzky’s final goal came in a New York sweater — the Rangers, not the Americans — against New York — the Islanders, also not the Americans — on March 29, 1999. When he retired, just four other players had even reached 700 NHL goals: Esposito, Howe, Mike Gargner (708) and Marcel Dionne (731). Ovechkin was still a few months from turning 14.
The OTHER pro league
So that’s where we sit, with The Ovi One just 95 goals short of catching The Great One, right? Well, sort of.
As the Freep pointed out in its brief on Gretzky’s final goal in 1999, the score gave him 1,072 goals in his career over the regular season and the playoffs — in the NHL and the WHA. That’s a measly one goal more than Howe had, though, as the Freep used 20 words of a 73-word brief — 27.3% — to point out: “Gretzky’s mark is not considered a record by the NHL, because it includes goals scored in the World Hockey Association.”
(No matter how small the space, there’s always room for petty in the Freep.)
And indeed, Gretzky had 46 WHA regular season goals (with the Oilers and Indianapolis Racers), 10 WHA playoff goals and 122 NHL playoff goals to go with his 894 regular-season goals. Howe was even more prolific over his six WHA seasons, with 174 regular-season goals (16th in league history) and 28 playoff goals to go with his 68 NHL playoff scores — 1,071 goals in all.
Even if we add in Ovechkin’s 72 NHL playoff goals, that puts him at 872 pro goals — nearly 200 behind Howe. Oh, and also Hull (the father of ex-Wing Brett Hull, you may remember). Hull the Elder was really good in the WHA, picking up 303 goals in the regular season and 43 in the playoffs, along with 62 in the NHL playoffs, for a total of 1,018 pro goals, 146 more than Ovechkin.
Is this perhaps overstating the quality of the WHA; after all, just four of the league’s career top-50 scorers — Hull, Gordie and Mark Howe and ex-Wing Vaclav Nedomansky — have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (and they made it, arguably, for their play outside the WHA). Even if we give Ovechkin credit for his season in Russia’s KHL during the 2012-13 NHL lockout, that gets him to 891 goals, still well short of Hull, Howe and Gretzky. (And if we’re giving Ovi KHL credit, there’s an argument for Jaromir Jagr, who had 766 NHL regular-season goals, 78 more in the playoffs and another 66 in the KHL between his NHL stints for a total of 910 goals. At least until he returns from the Czech team he currently owns and plays for.)
So who’s next?
All of that non-NHL-sanctioned scoring aside, Ovechkin is a virtual lock to pass Howe this month on the leader board we really care about: NHL goals. And as for Gretzky? Well, if Ovechkin keeps up the pace he has set in his 30s — 0.596 goals a game — we’d say you should expect him to get close around Thanksgiving 2024.
And as for who’ll inherit the title from Ovi? It’s probably too soon to tell — remember, Gretzky was 750 behind Howe when the latter retired — but it’s probably safe to bet on someone just starting now. Ovechkin is an incredible 366 goals ahead of the No. 2 active player, Sidney Crosby. Even 25-year-old Auston Matthews of Toronto and 27-year-old Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton, the leaders among the league’s active 20-something crowd with 275 goals each, would need another 16 seasons with at least 40 goals to catch Gretzky’s 894.
Then again, maybe it will be someone who just plays forever. After all, Ovechkin holds the record for 50-goal seasons (nine, tied with Gretzky and Mike Bossy) and 40-goal seasons (12, tied with Gretzky) and is second in 30-goal seasons (16, one behind Mike Gartner’s 17, though Ovi needs just 10 more goals this season for 30). But 20-goal seasons? Well, that’s one more category he has a ways to go to catch Mr. Hockey; Ovechkin has 18 of those, one fewer than Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Dave Andreychuk, two fewer than Ron Francis and four fewer than Howe. And no, that’s not including any of his WHA seasons, either.
Four more seasons? See you in 2026, Ovi!
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Alex Ovechkin still has years to catch Gordie Howe’s goal totals