Sports History: 10 of Hockey's Greatest Players

While hockey was first invented in the mid-1800s, the sport as we know it today didn't really take off in popularity across North America until the founding of the National Hockey League in 1917. Since then, the NHL has expanded its ranks and its geographical reach, going from five teams based in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Quebec, Canada, to 30 teams located from coast to coast in the United States and Canada. Much of this growth can be attributed, at least in part, to the famous names the sport has created. The popularity of hockey has only risen as standout players have led their teams to Stanley Cup championships and earned themselves places in the sport's hall of fame. The sport has also been popular with gamblers. Online sports books frequently feature NHL games and participants are all too eager to place their bets.

Maurice Richard

Nicknamed "The Rocket," Maurice Richard was known for his speed on the ice, but it wasn't just being fast that earned him fame. The Montreal Canadiens right-winger was the first player to score 50 goals in a season, and he was also the first player to amass 500 goals in his career. Richard was so beloved by fans that after he earned a suspension for hitting an official during a fight in March 1955, the crowd at the next Montreal home game took out their anger on the league commissioner, in attendance that night, by assaulting him, ultimately leading to the evacuation of the arena, which only escalated the violence into what would be known as "the Richard Riot." But this ugly incident was eventually overshadowed by what was to come in the following years: Richard led the Canadiens to five consecutive Stanley Cup championships, a feat that no team has duplicated since.

Bobby Hull

Known for helping the Chicago Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup in 1961, Bobby Hull was also the first player to score more than 50 goals in a season, a feat he accomplished five times. But while Hull was beloved by Hawks fans, he is also remembered for leaving them amid a falling-out with team management, and taking a $1 million signing bonus to join the fledgling World Hockey Association, a rival to the NHL, as a member of the Winnipeg Jets in 1972. The left-winger excelled there as well, helping the Jets to win three league championships before the organization merged with the NHL in 1979. But Hull wasn't to be the only hockey star in his family: His son Brett would later become famous in his own right as one of only a handful of players to score 50 goals in 50 games and a member of two Stanley Cup-winning teams.

Gordie Howe

Right-winger Gordie Howe began playing for the Detroit Red Wings in 1946, at the age of 18, and became famous both for his longevity as a player and for his skill. Howe played professional hockey until 1980, and during that time, he notched 801 goals in the NHL, a record that would only be broken by one player since. He was lauded for leading the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup wins, but he was also beloved for being a tough player on the ice. In fact, his style of play led to the term "Gordie Howe hat trick," which is when a player records a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game.

Bobby Orr

Most defensemen aren't known for their offensive skills, but Bobby Orr was an exception. In fact, he was the first defenseman to win the Art Ross Trophy, given to the player who scores the most points in a season. Knee problems curtailed his hockey career, but in just eight seasons, he made an indelible mark on the sport. He is perhaps most famous for the iconic goal he scored to win the 1970 Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins, but he has also earned a reputation for numerous quiet acts of kindness and charity, from visiting with fans who have lost loved ones or who have suffered from terminal illnesses to helping fellow players get their lives back on track after struggling with addictions.

Wayne Gretzky

"The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, is one of the biggest icons in the history of sports; review his accomplishments and it's easy to see why. The star center is perhaps known best for shattering Howe's scoring record: Over the course of his career, Gretzky scored an astonishing 894 goals, a number that isn't likely to be bested by anyone anytime soon. In fact, he had set or tied 61 NHL records when he retired in 1999. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that Gretzky was one of a handful of players immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame upon his retirement, rather than having to wait the usual three years. He was also the first player to have his jersey number retired league-wide.

Mario Lemieux

Star center "Super Mario" Lemieux led the Pittsburgh Penguins from being a losing team in turmoil, when he arrived in 1984, to winning the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. His goals-per-game average was among the highest in the league, despite the fact that he struggled with health problems including Hodgkin's lymphoma. Lemieux was also only the third player to come out of retirement after being inducted into the hall of fame. But his involvement with the Penguins wouldn't end there: A year before his return to the ice, he became majority owner of the team. In 2009, the Penguins won the championship, and Lemieux became the only person to have their name on the Stanley Cup as both a player and owner.

Patrick Roy

Patrick Roy helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993, and then won two more with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 and 2001. He is widely known as one of the greatest goaltenders of all time. He popularized the butterfly style of play, now common throughout the league. Roy was the first goalie to play in more than 1,000 games, and he was the first goalie to win more than 200 games with two different teams. He became coach of the Avalanche in 2013, and at the end of the 2013-14 season, he won the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach.

Martin Brodeur

In 21 seasons playing for the New Jersey Devils, Martin Brodeur made a name for himself as not only one of the greatest goalies of all time, but as one who wasn't content to just stay in the net and block shots. He is the only goalie in the history of the game to post eight 40-win seasons, and he also scored three goals during his career, tied for the most of any goalie. In fact, Brodeur's more offensive style of play inspired a new NHL rule. He was known for coming out of the crease to handle the puck, part of a team defensive strategy that slowed scoring in games, and in a move to increase scoring and make the game more exciting for fans, the NHL instituted the so-called "Brodeur rule" in 2005 to limit the area in which goalies could play the puck.

Sidney Crosby

Center Sidney Crosby was drafted by the Penguins as the first overall pick in 2005, and he's been showing the world why ever since. In his first season, "Sid the Kid" became the youngest player to score 100 points in a season in NHL history, and in his second year, he became the youngest scoring leader in the history of the league, as well as in the history of North American professional sports. He was also the youngest team captain in NHL history, being named to the position in 2007 at age 19, and in 2009, he became the youngest captain to lead his team to a Stanley Cup win. He's also known for scoring the game-winning goal in 2010's gold-medal game at the Olympics, earning the gold for Canada.

Alexander Ovechkin

Drafted first overall in 2004 by the Washington Capitals, left-winger Alexander Ovechkin was named the NHL's rookie of the year at the end of the 2005-06 season (the previous season having been lost to a lockout). In the 2007-08 season, he became the first player to win the Maurice Richard Trophy (given to the league's leading goal-scorer), the Art Ross Trophy (for the regular-season points leader), the Lester B. Pearson Award (given by the NHL Players Association to the most valuable player), and the Hart Memorial Trophy (given to the league MVP as chosen by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association) all in the same year. He was also only the fifth player in league history to get at least 30 goals per season in each of his first ten seasons. Ovechkin also made history as the only player to be a first-team All-Star in each of his first five seasons.