Chasing The Great One: Ovechkin vs Gretzky

This post originally appeared on DataBrain’s blog in July 2022. Enjoy!

Growing up in Canada meant hockey was a central part of our lives. My Dad was a star player in his younger days and was the captain of his college team, the University of Guelph Gryphons. Given his love of hockey, he often referenced sports metaphors when teaching life lessons to me and my brother. Case in point: his favorite way to end a pep talk? “Keep your stick on the ice”. 

My hometown was a short drive from Wayne Gretzky’s hometown, so you can imagine the excitement when the young player wearing #99 hit the big leagues. He became a national hero for a whole generation of Canadians from coast to coast, and deservedly earned the designation “The Great One” just as fast as he could skate circles around the opposing team. 

Naturally, my interest was piqued when an article caught my eye by sportswriter Tarik El-Bashir titled “Alex Ovechkin’s contract with Capitals gives him a chance to catch the great one for NHL goal-scoring record”. Could it be that another hockey player was within reach of breaking #99’s all-time goal record, one that has been held by The Great One for my entire life? Am I witnessing sports history in the making!?!

A little digging into some hockey stats revealed some intriguing data points that became the inspiration for this viz. I combined multiple data sources to put the magnitude of this potential achievement into context. Goal scoring became the focus of this viz and allowed me to answer the following questions:

How do Gretzky’s and Ovechkin’s goals per season compare?

Are there any other active players close to breaking The Great One’s record? 

Who among the top goal scorers has earned the most $ per goal?

Who has scored the most goals, in the shortest period of time?

Last but not least, as a nod to my home country and my dad as a young player – where do these top goal-scoring players first learn to lace up their skates?

Keeping best design principles in mind, I chose a red-black-grey color scheme to limit the clutter, while letting the emphasis on Ovechkin’s red team color tell the story.  A bar chart was chosen to quickly display the rank of the top 50 goal-scorers, with the length of the bar allowing easy comparison of total career goals. Clicking on the bars identifies the marks on the adjacent graphs, adding an element of interactivity to the viz. Scatterplots were employed to compare the metrics “salary vs goals scored” and “years played vs goals scored”. Tableau’s tooltip features are enabled on all graphs, allowing the audience to reveal additional, relevant details. Bar charts with timelines on the X-axis were generated to showcase a side-by-side comparison of the goals-per-season for Gretzky & Ovechkin, with an average goals-per-season reference line and color denoting the challenge Ovechkin faces in the years ahead. Last but not least, data calculations were done at the source level when possible to optimize dashboard performance, including calculating salaries in current dollars. Click here to explore the viz.

As I watched the NHL draft unfold this week, I was compelled to revisit the viz and answer one more question: Does draft order matter? It doesn’t appear so – only 9 of the top 50 goal scorers were drafted first (including Ovechkin) and interestingly, Gretzky was not drafted at all! You can read that story here. I guess what really matters at the end of the day is another metaphor my Dad was fond of saying “You always want to score the first goal, otherwise you need two to win.”

Good luck to all the rising stars who realized their dreams at the NHL draft this week, and best of luck to Ovechkin on his quest to surpass The Great One. 

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