If the greatest player ever in hockey is indicative of the player with the greatest numbers, then Wayne Gretzky wins hands down. However, if you consider the other intangibles that are a part of the game, such as hitting and physical play, that’s where Mr. Hockey comes in.
Gordie Howe did not need a Dave Semenko or a Marty McSorley. Howe was his own enforcer. Mr. Hockey instilled fear in the opposition the way no other superstar ever has. Although his physical contributions obviously took away from even higher offensive numbers, Howe commanded respect and room and was the total package. Love it or hate it, physical play has always been as much a part of hockey as the offense and Gordie Howe brought both to the rink every night.
Had Gretzky played during the 1950s or 60s, he likely would have still led the league in scoring, but not by nearly as dominating of margins as he did in the free-flowing 1980s. You see, it was universally understood that if you ran Gretzky, you would be targeted. In Howe’s era, players fought their own battles. There were no designated goons whose jobs were to specifically guard the superstars.
Fans who were fortunate enough to have seen Gordie Howe play swear by him. On the other hand, those who watched Gretzky work his magic; will tell you there is none better. As is the case with all sports debates, this one is no different. There is no definitive answer because it all comes down to a matter of opinion.