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Few care about A-Rod’s 600th; but Howe surpassing Richard was huge in the early ‘60s

Statistics mean a whole lot in baseball, and to a certain extent, they can mean a great deal in hockey as well.

And when it comes to records, especially all-time league records, certain “numbers” once upon a time were, in sporting terms, absolutely sacred. For example, even non-sports fans knew about Babe Ruth’s 714 lifetime major league home runs. 714 is just another number, but for generations, if you said 714, it meant Ruth and his staggering home run totals.

Ruth is still remembered to this day, for many reasons. He was a character, the “Sultan of Swat”, the “Bambino”, a guy who was such a good hitter he gave up pitching (and by all accounts, he was a brilliant pitcher) so he could play everyday. When other players were hitting 10 and 15 home runs a season, he was parking 40 and more—long before the possibility of performance enhancing help.  My late father saw the Babe play in person several times and I've heard many a story about Ruth.

When Hank Aaron surpassed Babe 's 714 n the mid 1970s’, it was a huge deal—and a memorable moment. While Aaron was a popular player, and a great one, some traditionalists didn’t like the idea that Ruth’s cherished record would be broken by anyone. But Aaron was almost the Jean Beliveau of baseball, and while the old Atlanta Fulton County Stadium (where he played a fair bit of his career) was considered a home run launching pad, he clearly earned his place in the record books.

When Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s mark just a few short years ago, the steroid controversy made it a rather subdued moment in baseball history.

Similarly, as New York’s Alex Rodriguez approaches 600 home runs on his way to breaking Bonds’ record (something that would have been a major story in the ‘50s, and ‘60s, and for that matter, until a few years ago), the response is fairly muted—again because of the steroid hangover.

Hockey has never experienced that kind of dilemma. Not to suggest that players have never used supplements, but few would argues that hockey has been tainted as football has been so obviously since the ‘70s (or track and field and cycling) and baseball in the last twenty years or so. But hockey records  remain a big deal to this day, especially the hallowed single-season goal scoring mark and the all-time goal record, both now held by Gretzky, of course.

When I was young, in the early ‘60s, 544 was the hockey equivalent of 714. Because hockey simply did not have the allure in the U.S. that baseball had, Rocket Richard’s lifetime goal mark meant a lot to a relatively small and passionate group of sports fans. 544 was a lot of goals—and he represented not only Montreal but the province of Quebec and French-Canada in a way that made losing the record highly unpopular in its own way.

His hated Red Wing rival, Gordie How, was the guy to do it, which made it all the worse.

To add insult, Howe scored number 544 against the Habs in Detroit (see photo above of Howe fending off Gilles Tremblay to score the record-tying marker against future Hall-of-Famer Gump Worsley) and two weeks later established a new record. Number 545 was again scored against Montreal, this time with Charlie Hodge in goal.

Howe went on to score more than 800 career goals in the NHL (and many more in the WHA, for a combined total of 975 regular-season goals.) Interestingly, Gretzky scored 940 between the two leagues, and Bobby Hull a total of 913—making Howe the all-time leader, though Gretzky is considered the official record-holder because of his NHL numbers. (Just an aside—in the National Football League, don’t they include the old AFL stats in a player’s overall career? Perhaps that is the case because the two leagues formally merged.)

Howe was never able to equal or surpass Richard’s single season record of 50 goals, though Montreal's "Boom Boom" Geoffrion equaled it. Bobby Hull scored as many as 58 one season to establish what was then a new record until Boston’s Phil Esposito (Hull’s former linemate in Chicago, pictured with the Bruins at right) netted a then remarkable 76 goals during the 1970-’71 NHL season.

That mark stood until Gretzky crashed through with 92 goals in a single-season.  It was a high-scoring era but that's still a stunning number.

Hockey records still matter, and always will. Baseball numbers still matter, too, but it will be some time before fans can come to grips with what modern-era records really mean.

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