Ranking the 10 greatest years in hockey history

Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers outlasted the Flyers in an epic seven-game Stanley Cup Final in 1987. Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the National Hockey League is telling anyone that will listen, it was 100 years ago this month that the league's first games were played.

This centennial celebration has given every hockey fan a chance to contemplate the past, whether it's through ranking the greatest players of all time or debating the greatest moments in NHL history.

We decided to extend this hockey introspection further than the NHL, in an effort to determine which year, since 1917, was the greatest in hockey history.

Some brief ground rules: We're talking calendar year, not season. So we'll count the total achievements of a player for that season, as well as the postseason, and then factor in anything noteworthy from the beginning of the following season.

We're also factoring in international hockey tournaments -- the Olympics, world juniors, world championships, the Canada Cup and others -- along with anything off the ice that might have made the year a memorable one.

All this established, let's look back at the best 10 years -- out of the past 100 -- for hockey.

10. 1968

As tumultuous a year in hockey as you'll find.

The NHL expanded from its "original six" to 12 teams in 1967-68, with the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues joining the fray. The NHL put all of those teams in the same division, meaning that an expansion team was going to have the chance to win the Stanley Cup in its inaugural season. Every "West Division" playoff series in 1968 went seven games, including the No. 4-seeded North Stars stunning the Kings in the first round. Sure, the Blues got rolled by the Canadiens in the Cup Final, but who didn't the Habs demolish back then?

But the most memorable moment of 1968 was also one of the most tragic in hockey history: the death of Bill Masterton of the North Stars. On Jan. 13, 1968, Masterton suffered a severe internal brain injury during a game against the California Seals when he fell backward and hit his unprotected head on the ice. Masterton passed out, was taken to the hospital, never regained consciousness and died, at the age of 29, on Jan. 15. To date, he's the only player in NHL history to have died as a result of an in-game injury. His death left a lasting legacy, from the institution of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies the virtues of "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey" that Masterton displayed to hastening the adoption of helmets for NHL players.

It was also an Olympic year. The Soviets routed Canada -- which had previously been stunned by Finland in pool play -- 5-0 to win gold. But the tournament was notable for another reason: It featured the first and only Olympic hockey game between East and West Germany, which the West Germans won 4-2.

9. 1942

Look, the NHL is 100 years old. Our perspective is, admittedly, skewed toward the more recent years. Which is why we reached out to the great Stan Fischler, hockey historian, and asked him what his favorite hockey year was. And he said the 1941-42 season.

From Stan: "I was 10 years old at the time, and became a Maple Leafs fan -- even though I lived in Brooklyn -- because I was 'lured' to the Leafs by Foster Hewitt's broadcasts. That was for starters. It was a seven-team league [before the "Original Six" era] and World War II had yet to decimate rosters. Lines such as the 'Krauts' in Boston were supreme, and so were the goaltenders who never wore masks. Hardly any players wore helmets.

"A fan like me got to know every player just by looking at him; no scorecard was necessary. It was the acme year for clean-tough hockey, with the likes of Jimmy Orlando, Bucko McDonald, Bingo Kampman and Art Coulter tossing genuine body checks -- the likes of which are virtually unknown today. The best goalies were Mister Zero, Frankie Brimsek in Boston, Davey Kerr in New York, Turk Broda in Toronto and Johnny Bowers in Detroit. The Rangers finished first, led by Sugar Jim Henry in the net.

"Even the Americans, in their last year, had a rookie goalie named Chuck Rayner who would make the Hall of Fame. Tommy Anderson won the Hart, if I'm not mistaken. [Ed. Note: He's not.]

"Yes, the game was slower but it was 'good slower,' because plays could be made and the dopey fire-the-puck-in-the-corner-and-hope-for-the-best' philosophy didn't work.

"Tickets were cheap enough that the lower-middle class could afford to go whenever -- as was proven in my case. Of course, when you have only seven teams, fans can easily zero in and get to know them much better than they can today."

All great points from The Maven, but we'll add a couple of more. The 1942 Stanley Cup Final featured what was, at the time, the greatest comeback in the history of professional team sports: The Maple Leafs rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to defeat the Detroit Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. It took 33 years for it to happen again in a best-of-seven series in the NHL -- and then it happened twice from 2010 to '14. In Major League Baseball, it has happened only once, in 2004.

Later in 1942, the Brooklyn Americans were dropped by the NHL, leaving the league with only six teams -- the Bruins, Black Hawks, Red Wings, Canadiens, Rangers and Maple Leafs. It would remain that way for another 25 years.

8. 1986

This year makes the cut for two reasons: Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy.

Gretzky's achievements are legion, and many of his records won't be broken without some radical recalibration of the game. This year saw the Great One hit one of his greatest marks: 215 points in a single season, topping his 212 in 1981-82. That's 215 points on Edmonton's 426 total goals that season. He scored more points in a single season than Justin Abdelkader has scored in his career so far (213 in 574 games). Gretzky's 163 assists are also the most in a season in NHL history, 28 more than the next-closest total.

In the calendar year of 1986, Gretzky scored 213 regular-season points, which was 83 points more than the next-highest player, Mario Lemieux.

(Keep in mind that Gretzky also achieved this after the NHL board of governors voted to end four-on-four play after coincidental minors, which was believed to give the Oilers an overwhelming advantage.)

Oh, but 1986 would be memorable for the Oilers on an entirely different scale: Game 7, Calgary Flames, Steve Smith's own-goal and the conference semifinal upset that shocked the world.

The Flames and rookie goalie Mike Vernon would make the Stanley Cup Final, facing another pretty decent rookie goalie: Roy, who pulled a Ken Dryden and won the Cup and the Conn Smythe for Montreal with a brilliant performance.

Away from the NHL, there was one huge story: Rookie sniper Brett Hull of the Flames was passed over for the 1986 Team Canada squad at worlds, so he used his dual citizenship to play for Team USA, scoring seven goals for the Americans in the tournament and remaining with the U.S. program throughout his international career. In 1996's World Cup of Hockey, Hull helped Team USA to a monumental win over Canada.

7. 1918

As the saying goes, you never forget your first time.

The NHL's inaugural season was 1917-18, and the nascent four-team league saw Toronto win the Stanley Cup against the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in Game 5 of a best-of-five series. Fun!

Also fun: Hall of Famer Joe Malone of Montreal led all players in that calendar year with 38 points in 17 games, a 2.235 points-per-game rate. He shared the aggregate point lead in that year with fellow Hall of Famer Cy Denneny, who had 38 points in 19 games. But Malone was just dominant in goal scoring with 33, a ridiculous 1.94 per game.

Teams finished 1917-18 averaging 4.75 goals per game, the second-highest rate for a season in NHL history.

We're going with 1918 in the 7-spot, however, for two reasons: Rules changes and drama.

On the rules front, 1918 saw the NHL allowing goaltenders to drop to the ice surface for the first time to make saves; the creation of five-minute majors for intent to injure; the creation of three zones on the ice with the addition of two lines parallel to the center ice line; and "forward passing" was allowed in the neutral zone, for the first time anywhere on the ice.

Oh, and on the drama front: The NHL nearly folded after one season, thanks to a year of legal challenges from disgruntled Toronto owner Eddie Livingstone and other factors. The 1918-19 season opened with three teams, one of whom (Toronto) would drop out during the campaign. (Eventually, the Stanley Cup Final would be prematurely ended due to a Spanish flu outbreak ... but that's another year.)

6. 1971

Remember that "Dawn of the Dead" remake, which might still stand as the only truly good movie Zack Snyder has directed? The remake has its virtues, but couldn't quite top the gory glory of the George Romero original.

This is, in essence, why 1971 was ranked ahead of 1986.

Like Gretzky's points explosion in 1985-86, the 1970-71 season saw one of the single greatest offensive seasons up to that point in NHL history: Phil Esposito's 76 goals for the Boston Bruins, which is tied for the fifth-highest total ever for a single season. But within context, it's even greater: Before Espo's 76 goals, the highest total was Bobby Hull's 58 goals in 1968-69. So this was unprecedented.

Esposito was simply dominant throughout the 1971 calendar year, scoring a league-best 72 goals and 146 points. The only player who had more assists than his 74 in that span was teammate Bobby Orr, with 96. Esposito had the most power-play goals (25), power-play points (52) and game-winning goals (18) that year as well. The Bruins finished the season with 399 goals, most in a season at that time.

It was a remarkable year for the Hall of Famer, but ultimately a disappointing one, as Montreal stunned the Bruins in seven games during the quarterfinal of the 1971 Stanley Cup playoffs, a series that included the classic Game 2 that saw Montreal rally from a 5-2 deficit with five goals in the third period.

And while Patrick Roy's run to the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe was great, you still can't top the original: Ken Dryden, having played six regular-season games in his career, played 20 in the 1971 playoffs and won the postseason MVP for Montreal after a Game 7 Stanley Cup win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

5. 1980

It would take a miracle for the Miracle to not make this list.

The U.S. men's hockey team upsetting the heavily favored Soviet team and then winning gold against Finland in Lake Placid wasn't just one of the most memorable events in hockey history, but in sports history. Sure, some of its aftereffects and influence may have been exaggerated through the years -- did the Miracle on Ice or Wayne Gretzky have more to do with the growth of hockey in the U.S.? -- but there's no getting around the idea that it's the single most epic moment in international hockey history, with apologies to the Canada vs. Russia battles in the 1970s.

The enormity of that event obviously fuels 1980 as one of the greatest hockey years, but let's not sleep on the NHL's momentous year. In 1979-80, there was another round of expansion, as the WHA's Edmonton Oilers, New England "soon to be Hartford" Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets joined the fray. Because of that, there was a change in the playoff format, as it was expanded to 16 teams for the first time and without regard for conferences and divisions; hence, the top-seeded Flyers faced the No. 16 Oilers in the first round. It was nutty.

(Those Oilers had a 19-year-old player named Gretzky, who won his first Hart Trophy in 1980. He would win eight more.)

But in the end, history was made: The New York Islanders won their first of four straight Stanley Cups, defeating the Flyers in overtime in Game 6 on a Bobby Nystrom goal.

In the process, Ken Morrow became the first player in hockey history to win Olympic gold and a Stanley Cup in the same year. Yeah, 1980 was good to him.

4. 2006

There will never be another season like 2005-06 in the NHL. And by that, we're of course referencing our undying hope that the owners never cancel another full season, even if doing so led to a slew of rules changes and the league basically pounding the "reset" button to get rid of the malaise of the trap years.

The 2005-06 season brought us many new rules, from the legalization of two-line passes to the death of tie games via the shootout to the crackdown on obstruction that led to the highest goals-per-game average in the NHL (3.08) in a decade. It brought us the dueling rookie seasons of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin; Joe Thornton getting traded from the Bruins to the Sharks and then edging Jaromir Jagr for the scoring title and the Hart Trophy, while fueling one of the most inexplicable goal-scoring seasons in NHL history -- Jonathan Cheechoo leading the league with 56 goals.

It also brought us a wild postseason, including the Cinderella run by the No. 8 seed Oilers through the Western Conference and two epic seven-game series. The Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres faced off in the Eastern Conference finals, and then the Hurricanes won their first Stanley Cup over the Oilers thanks to rookie goalie and Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward.

The unpredictability of 2006 spilled over to the Olympics, with Canada and the U.S. being eliminated in the quarterfinals and Sweden topping Finland for the gold. The Swedish team faced allegations of throwing its game against Slovakia in the preliminary round in order to draw the Swiss in the quarterfinals.

In the women's Olympic tournament, Canada claimed gold with a win over Sweden, who handed the Americans their first loss in international competition to a team other than Canada.

3. 1994

This year featured two of the all-time greatest moments in hockey history, bolstered by what was an outstanding year all around.

The Rangers' Stanley Cup win broke a 54-year drought and captured the imagination of the sports world beyond hockey. Mark Messier became a Derek Jeter-level New York sports icon thanks to his "guarantee." Their Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup Final wins over the Devils and Canucks -- both in seven games -- were classic.

But then again, Game 7s were the thing in 1994. There were seven of them, for the first time in NHL history. (The mark has been tied twice since then.) That included two double-overtime series-deciding games: Pavel Bure's game-winning goal that capped the Canucks' rally from a 3-1 series deficit against the Flames (Vancouver won each of the last three games in OT); and that one that Stephane Matteau (Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!) scored for the Rangers.

The regular season saw the rise of Dominik Hasek, winning his first Vezina and finishing second for the Hart Trophy for the Sabres; a 60-goal season from Bure; a Calder-winning season from Martin Brodeur; and a race for the Art Ross between Gretzky (130) and Sergei Fedorov (120, including 56 goals).

But it was a star not yet in the NHL who also made 1994 memorable: Peter Forsberg.

The 20-year-old Swedish phenom scored the shootout-deciding goal against Canada's Corey Hirsch to win Olympic men's hockey goal in a thrilling finale, earning him international fame and a place on a Swedish postage stamp.

Oh, yeah, 1994 was also memorable for another reason: Not having any hockey for the rest of the year after the Rangers' win, thanks to the lockout. Ugh.

2. 1993

Yeah, it was a pretty good two-year stretch for the NHL. In fact, it could be argued that 1992-93 was the NHL's last great season. A few of the highlights:

  • There were 7,311 goals scored, which is the second most all time behind the freakish 2005-06 season (7,443). However, there were 444 fewer games and six fewer teams in 1992-93 than 2005-06.

  • There were 21 players who scored 100 points, and 14 players scored 50 goals. There have been 21 instances of 100-point seasons over the last 11 seasons combined.

  • You had Teemu Selanne's all-time rookie record of 76 goals. And it wasn't even enough to outright win the scoring race, as Alexander Mogilny had 76 as well.

  • The playoffs were bonkers. There were five teams that had a regular-season points percentage below .500 that won a series against a team that had a percentage above .600. That included the "May Day!" goal by Brad May in overtime to complete a Sabres sweep of the Bruins and that classic Islanders upset of the two-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins in overtime of Game 7 thanks to David Volek.

  • There was also that Game 7 between the Leafs and Kings that featured a Gretzky hat trick -- which followed the Gretzky high stick on Doug Gilmour in Game 6 that wasn't called.

  • The Stanley Cup Final featured the Marty McSorley illegal stick challenge in Game 2 that changed the series, and a Montreal Canadiens victory -- the last team from Canada to win the Cup.

  • Off the ice, it was the last year of the Adams, Patrick, Norris and Smythe divisions; the first year of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Florida Panthers; and the NHL had the wackiness of neutral-site games in places like Peoria, Cleveland and Sacramento.

  • Oh, and depending on how you feel about this, it could be a plus or a minus: Gary Bettman was named NHL commissioner in 1993.

It's a little humbling to think about what we consider to be outstanding individual achievement or playoff drama in today's game when compared to the unbelievable run the NHL had in 1993 and 1994.

But neither rank as the best year in hockey of the past century ...

1. 1987

Nothing compares to 1987 in the history of hockey.

"I suppose you can make a case for other years, but 1987 is it for me," said Michael Farber, Hall of Fame hockey writer for Sports Illustrated.

Just four days into the year, there was a legendary "Punch-Up In Piestany:" The massive 20-minute benches-clearing brawl between Canada and the USSR at the World Junior Championship that ended up getting both teams ejected from the rest of the tournament, and potentially costing Canada a gold medal. It featured future stars like Brendan Shanahan, Theo Fleury, Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov.

"As you know, the fighting continued under the cover of darkness because organizers simultaneously threw up their hands and threw their light switch in an effort to restore order," recalled Farber.

The 1986-87 NHL season was epic as well, in one case literally: "The Easter Epic," in which Pat LaFontaine scored in the fourth overtime to eliminate the Washington Capitals in Game 7. Three of the four division finals went seven games, as did the Stanley Cup Final, which is considered by many to be the greatest in NHL history: Gretzky's Oilers against the Philadelphia Flyers, for the second time in three years. But these Flyers had Ron Hextall in goal, the slash-happy rookie who would win the Conn Smythe in a losing effort, as Edmonton outlasted the Flyers in seven games -- the first time since 1971 a Final went the distance.

All of this would put 1987 in the conversation for best year ever, but we're not even close to done here. There was Rendez-vous '87, a two-game exhibition between a team of NHL All-Stars and the Soviet men's national team played in Quebec City (and in lieu of the NHL All-Star Game that season). The NHL won Game 1; the Soviets won Game 2.

But the mic-drop moment for 1987 was the Canada Cup, which has been called "the best hockey ever played" by The Hockey News.

It was a round-robin tournament held at the end of the summer, and culminated in the anticipated finale: Team Canada vs. the Soviet Union in a best-of-three series. Those three games: 6-5 for the USSR in overtime; 6-5 for Canada in double-overtime; and 6-5 for Canada in the final game, played on Sept. 15 in Hamilton. In that epic final, the Soviets scored three times in the first eight minutes. Canada rallied for a 5-4 lead. Russia tied it in the third. But then Gretzky and Lemieux combined for the most memorable goals in hockey history with 1:26 left for the win.

An epic brawl. An epic season. An epic moment involving two of the game's greatest legends. An actual Easter Epic.

Thanks for playing, 99 other hockey years ...