Welcome to NHL99, The AthleticA countdown of the top 100 players in modern NHL history. We rank 100 players, but we call it 99 because we all know who is #1. We need to understand the 99 places behind the number 99. Every Monday through Saturday through February, we’ll be introducing new members to the list.
Ernie Banks. Dan Marino. Charles Barkley. Don Mattingly. Patrick Ewing. Barry Sanders.
As a sports fan, what do you think of when you hear those names?
I’d like to think that your mind is flooded with memories of amazing moments, historic achievements, milestones, records and milestones. If you’re lucky enough to see at least a few of them play with your own eyes, I hope those are the moments that jump out at you. If those are just names from the past to you, then maybe you’re conjuring up old highlights, or better yet, stories that the older sports fans in your life have passed down to you. I’d like to think so.
But I know there’s a good chance you’re thinking of something else, something that combines those names. You think about the dreaded qualification that is attached like a scarlet letter to the career of an otherwise undisputed superstar; they never won the big one.
Many good players never win championships. Even some big ones. But unless you’re Ted Williams, you don’t achieve true legend status unless you win. That championship ring doubles as the key that unlocks the gates of immortality, and entry is not allowed without it.
All of which brings us to Marcel Dion, number 20 on our list of the NHL’s greatest players of the modern era.
For hockey fans, Dion is many things. One of the all-time leading scorers with 1,771 career points, more than Phil Esposito or Steve Yzerman or Mario Lemieux. Four-time All-Star. A two-time winner of the Lester B. Pearson Award, now known as Ted Lindsey, as the league’s most outstanding player as voted by his peers. Owner of eight 100-point seasons, third all-time. The star who beat rookie Wayne Gretzky for the scoring title in 1980, becoming the last player to do so in eight years. The man who inherited the mantle of franchise player from Gordie Howe in Detroit. Kings all-time leading scorer to date.
And, yes, probably the greatest NHL player to never win a Stanley Cup.
Our voters think so. We still have 19 names to make this list, but be warned, Dion is the last retired player we’ll see without at least one ring. You can make a case for Joe Thornton or Jarome Iginla. Brad Park and Borge Salming tackle. But as great as those players were, I don’t think it’s close. Among the stars not named in the Stanley Cup, Dion is head and shoulders above.
And I hate that it’s an important part of his legacy. So let’s talk about it, hopefully I can convince you to stop doing this to the big players.
Dion’s NHL history begins with the 1971 amateur draft. He is one of two French-Canadian junior stars in contention for the top pick, a pick owned by the Montreal Canadiens. The other is winger Guy Lafleur, and that’s what the Canadiens pick. Dion goes second to the Detroit Red Wings.
Let’s stop right here. Dion, like every draft-era star, didn’t have a choice about where to start his career. He was included in the draft, the right of which belongs to the team that announces his name. The Canadians were the defending Cup champions. The Red Wings were coming off a season where they had won 22 of their 70 games.
Does anyone want to make the argument that Marcell Dion doesn’t win the Cup if the Canadiens pull him instead of the Wings? That he doesn’t win a few? If he goes to a team led by Sam Pollock and Scotty Bowman, there are already young stars like Ken Dryden and Serge Savar and Ivan Cournoyer and Guy Lapont, and it was going to take Larry Robinson in the second round of the same 1971 draft. , that he does not match the five Lafleur won.
Of course it does. The lack of Dion trophy rings has nothing to do with character or leadership or any of the other qualities we like to ascribe to “winners” in the sports world. He was one pick away from being drafted by a dynasty. Instead, he went to the Ned Harkness-era Red Wings because that’s how the system worked. Still does.
As a fun side note. Pollock appeared to come close to beating out Harkness for the No. 2 overall pick and leaving the draft with both Lafleur and Dion. If that deal actually happened, it boggles the mind. Marcel Dion, the star who could never win, could retire with too many rings to fit on both hands.
But it didn’t, and Dion was exiled to Detroit, where Darkness With Harkness was underway. Dion lived up to the hype and then some, scoring 366 points in 309 games over his first four seasons, finishing as a Calder finalist in 1971-72 and eighth in Hart voting in 1974-75. In that fourth year, while Dion eclipsed Howe’s single-season franchise record with 121 points, the team’s next leading scorers were guys named Danny Grant, Nick Libbett and Bill Hogaboam.
Somehow, Dion couldn’t drag that crew to the Stanley Cup. A real black mark on his resume.
Well, well, star players can’t decide where they started their careers, and some are stuck in struggling franchises with no hope of winning. But we all know most of those players are complacent and happy to work for a bottom-placed team as long as they can cash in on a big contract. Wouldn’t a real winner try to force their way out of that bad situation?
Well, of course. Except Marcel Dion did it too.
Ned Harkness was a very successful figure in college hockey and was undoubtedly a great man, but as the NHL GM responsible for navigating the Red Wings into a post-Hawley future, he was awfully in over his head. Wanting a chance to win, and of course a substantial raise along the way, Dion used the WHA’s threat to become one of the first NHL stars forced out of a team that still held his rights. His chosen destination was Los Angeles, a team that came off a 105-point season but lacked the top talent to take the next step. Dion signed with the Kings, forcing the Red Wings to work out a trade. They did, getting little in return, and one of hockey’s brightest young stars headed to Los Angeles
Dion debuted with 94 points, then followed that up with his first 50-goal season in 1976-77, finishing with 123 points and earning first-team All-Star honors for the first time. His best stretch came over three seasons from 1978-81 in which he had 170 goals and 402 points, finishing as a Hart finalist and All-Star all three years while beating out Gretzky for the 1980 Art Ross.
Those Royals were good. But while they won several preliminary round series, they never had a consistent playoff run. They lost twice to Don Cherry’s Bruins and faced an Islanders team in 1980 that was about to set a professional sports record with 19 straight playoff victories. Dion was one of the game’s most recognizable stars, but the championship was elusive.
It wasn’t entirely obvious at the time, but by the time Dion accepted his Art Ross, the foundation had shifted in the NHL. Gretzky would take over and his Oilers would soon follow. The Kings will begin to walk back, though not before the most memorable playoff performance of Dion’s career. In 1982, centering his now-familiar Triple Crown streak with Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer, Dion led the Kings to a five-game sweep of Gretzky’s Oilers that included a miracle in Manchester.
To this point, Marcell Dion has spent a decade putting up offensive numbers that only a handful of players have ever matched. He outscored nearly every star in the league, including Lafleur. He was voted the NHL’s best player twice by his peers. And he just went up against an all-powerful Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers and did a miracle to beat them.
Not a winner? What are we even doing here?
Let’s rephrase the question: Why do we do this?
Sports fans, I mean. Why is beating the big one such an obsession for us when it comes to player rankings and rankings? Why do we like to point the finger at the accomplishments of guys who did everything you could ask but were never in the right place to win a championship?
Part of that is obviously the importance we place on championships in the first place. We are told they are all. In the hockey world, no one cares who wins the Presidents Trophy, and players are taught that even winning the conference is so unimportant that they shouldn’t even bother touching the trophy.
But does that mean one player can be responsible for winning and losing?
In some sports, of course, at least to some extent. One superstar on an NBA roster where he can be one of five players on the floor for the vast majority of every game can have a huge impact on his team’s fortunes. So can quarterback in the NFL, as it is easily the most important position in sports. An MLB starting pitcher sits five to four days, but at least he has tremendous control over the half of the game when he pitches.
But hockey? A sport that its own fans love to anoint as the ultimate team sport. Even a goalkeeper can do a lot. A skater who plays maybe 25 minutes a game. We know better, don’t we?
And we do. But then we forget the lesson or ignore it so we can belittle a player like Thornton, Roberto Luongo or the Sedins, or shake our heads at how incomplete Iginla’s legacy is. We know it’s nonsense, or we should. But we play together anyway.
Part of me thinks there’s something deeper going on here. I think hockey fans are afraid to admit how much randomness there is in the modern era, with the prevailing parity and relatively low-scoring games. With 32 teams, half of which make the playoffs, upsets are common. Even if your favorite team does everything right and builds a true contender while staying power, how likely is it that they’ll actually win the Stanley Cup?
I don’t think we want to know. I think we realize we’re not going to like the answer.
So we tell ourselves that winners find a way and pretend that a true star can lead his team to the promised land by force of will. And if that star has to be traded to a better team at the end of his career, well, fine by us. Just make sure you don’t run out of rings.
Screw that. It is already enough. Let’s learn to appreciate greatness, really celebrate it, without asterisks.
Marcel Dion was great.
He followed up the Manchester miracle with 56 goals in 1982-83, his fifth consecutive 50-goal season (tied with Brett Hull and Phil Esposito for the fourth-longest streak in league history). He would play for the Kings until the 1986-87 season, when he was dealt to the Rangers at the deadline. In 1987-88, which would be his last full season at age 36, he scored 31 goals and 65 points in just 67 games. When he retired in 1989, only Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky had more points.
And no, he never won a Stanley Cup. In fact, it didn’t even make it past the second round.
And what. Appreciate greatness wherever you are lucky enough to find it. Ring or no ring, Marcel Dion was one of the greatest of them all.
(Top photo by Dennis Broder/Getty Images)