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No overcrowding at this posh club: Let's increase degree of difficulty on superstar distinction

Our definition of what constitutes a true superstar is restrictive. You have to be among the top few players in the league for an extended period.

Since this is the Superstar Issue and all, if there were ever an appropriate time to employ the oldest and most hackneyed trick in the Guide to Mediocre Sportswriting, this is it. So please, behold it in all its greatness. “Webster’s defines superstar as: ‘1. A star (as in sports or the movies) who is considered extremely talented, has great public appeal and can usually command a high salary, or, 2. One that is very prominent or a prime attraction.’ ”

In the hockey world, we tend to throw around the term “superstar” very liberally without actually having defining criteria for the position. Of course, the last four men who have been in charge of “discipline” and “player safety” in the NHL combined for a total of 6,193 career penalty minutes, so you can see we’re not so big on “criteria” in this part of the world.

For a long time, the hockey world has used pretty much the same criteria that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used in 1964 to define hardcore pornography. “I know it when I see it,” Potter said. That, of course, opens things up to vast swaths of interpretation, which is all good until someone on Twitter suggests that Adam Foote had a Hall of Fame-caliber career. True story. Did a spit take with my Ovaltine when I read that one.

Where better than to establish a definition for a superstar than in the Superstar Issue? So, here goes: “The Hockey News defines superstar as a player who has been among the top three players in the game for a sustained period of time.” Does that make the definition rather strict? Yes. But that’s the way it should be. We’re talking about superstars here. The same way the Hall of Fame should be reserved for the great and not just the really good – it isn’t unfortunately – the term superstar should be reserved for those who merit the highest status as NHL players.

By that criteria, Sidney Crosby is a superstar and Anze Kopitar is not. Eric Lindros was a superstar, Adam Oates was not. Dominik Hasek, superstar. Ed Belfour, not a superstar. And the thing about that definition is there can’t be any more than a couple of superstars at the same time at any point in history.

In this issue, we’ve focused on three players – Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Connor McDavid – all superstars, and the only ones in the game at the moment. (Or in the case of McDavid, a superstar in the making.) In fact, I would argue that the number of superstars in the history of the NHL is somewhere between 35 and 50. That’s it. Considering that as of this writing, a total of 7,795 players had played at least one game in the NHL, being in that group would put a player in the top one percent of those who have played the game. That’s as it should be.

A good case for comparison that illustrates the difference between superstar and really good player is Mike Bossy vs. Mike Gartner. Both are in the Hall of Fame, both were prolific offensive producers for their teams. Bossy scored 50 goals in nine straight seasons and for the better part of that decade was one of the most offensively dangerous players on the planet. And in the Islanders’ four consecutive Stanley Cup triumphs, Bossy scored a total of 61 goals, which averages to 15 per playoff year. Gartner, on the other hand, sits seventh on the NHL’s all-time goals list with 708 and hit the 30-goal mark in a remarkable 15 consecutive seasons. But was Gartner ever considered a top-three player in the NHL at any time during his career? No. Did he do it in the playoffs? Unfortunately, no. So the verdict is Bossy was a superstar and Gartner was not.

Another interesting case is Dale Hawerchuk. He’s in the Hall of Fame, scored 518 goals and 1,409 points and was one of the most productive players of his era. Unfortunately for Hawerchuk, he played the same position as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Eric Lindros in their primes. As a result, he made the second all-star team just once during his career. Great player, wonderful offensive producer, but not a superstar. Sorry, Dale. In another era, Hawerchuk would have undoubtedly been good enough to earn the superstar tag. In the era in which he played, no chance.

Another interesting facet of this debate: you could argue the Toronto Maple Leafs have never, ever had a superstar. Ever. Mats Sundin? Borje Salming? Dave Keon? Frank Mahovlich? Nope, nope, nope and nope. Remember the criteria here. While all were wonderful players, not a single one of them was ever considered at the top of his craft for a sustained period of time. They have just three major awards among them – Calder Trophies for Keon and Mahovlich and a Conn Smythe Trophy for Keon. Keon also won two Lady Byng Trophies. Salming was a first-team all-star once. Mahovlich was a first-team all-star three times, but played in eras dominated by Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Doug Harvey, Jean Beliveau and Bobby Hull. This is the ultimate example of the triumph of team success over individual accolades. It is not the stuff of superstars.

Ours is a restrictive, narrow definition. We’re not talking about the Lions Club or Hair Club For Men here. If you want to wear the superstar designation in the NHL, you have to earn it.

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