Does ‘first ballot Hall of Famer’ matter in hockey?

Scott Niedermayer and Chris Chelios have a lot in common. They’re both defensemen. Both won the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold and the Norris Trophy. (Ed. Note: Damn patriotic pride.) One was a Devil, and we’re assuming the other made a deal with him in order to stop aging around 1992.

They’re also both First Ballot Hall of Famers, which might mean something to you if you treat the Hockey Hall of Fame with some reverence or might mean nothing to you if you view “immortality” as another subjective, politicized accolade from a system that gave us Alex Ovechkin, Two-Time All-Star on The Same Team.

I’ll caucus with the former group, in that I think getting elected on your first attempt is the highest honor of the highest honor.

To be a “First Ballot Hall of Famer” is to be a no-questions-asked legend of the game. Someone whose ticket is punched well before the official phone call from the selection committee.

This might not mean anything to the Gretzkys or Marios of the world, because they should have their own wings of the Hall along let alone be first ballot players. Rather, it validates the tiers below them.

Mats Sundin is a great example. There’s something affirming about his career when he enters the Hall in his first year of eligibility, while others wait.

Argue the merits of that honor if you please – a player without a major individual award or a Cup ring probably isn’t on my first ballot – but Mats Sundin was a guy the selection committee looked at, considered and said “we have to get this guy in immediately.”

(Probably because the Hall of Fame is located in Toronto. But we digress …)

I’d argue that it matters when a player is elected to the Hall.

Fred Shero and Mark Howe wait decades for enshrinement, and we’re left wondering what karmic punishment they’re serving and what conditions changed to finally allow then entry into the Hall.

Brendan Shanahan, Class of 2013, doesn’t make the first ballot last year but makes it this year, and we’re left wondering if it’s because he appeared in too many of those spiffy suspension videos.

What that tells you, essentially, is that while Shanahan shares the same Hall as Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman and Mats Sundin but is a notch below them in stature, in the Hall of Fame’s eyes. Just like Doug Gilmour or Adam Oates or Pavel Bure, he’s Second Team All-Hall Of Fame.

The counterargument, made by Doogie in a spirited Twitter debate that led to this post, is that the process is so politicized and petty that there’s no reason to get bent out of shape over being a “second ballot” Hall of Famer. That the honor is a completely superficial, ultimately meaningless one – quick, on what ballot did Mike Gartner get in on?

(The answer: First Ballot.)

Where do you stand on this? Does First Ballot matter? I think it separates the true immortals from the “Hall of Fame players.” But maybe the most important thing is simply getting in.

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