TORONTO — From a personal standpoint, this weekend at the Hockey Hall of Fame — like the one before and one before that — has taken on enhanced meaning.
It is worth mentioning that I’m covering the event professionally for the first time. But irrespective to having to steam a suit in order to witness these crowning achievements within the holy walls of the Front Street shrine, the reason is nothing more than the function of time.
At a certain age, now, there’s no reason to rely on someone’s word.
The first chapters of Martin St. Louis’s rags to riches story? I remember those. What was tacked to my bedroom wall as a kid? A signed, laminated picture Martin Brodeur. Should you choose, you could loosely break down my time on this planet into four-year segments between gold medals won by Canadian hockey icon Jayna Hefford. And as a hockey fan first, I’ve cursed Gary Bettman a few times, only to realize now that the work stoppages were worth it.
Now more than ever I understand how important it is to recognize and celebrate trailblazer Willie O’Ree right along with the other, most influential people in the sport’s history.
You are privy to something special, though, while being witness to six hockey legends reaching the zenith. Typical conversations with players and other hockey people that are normally reserved, deflective and regimented in nature — as to protect themselves, their organizations, egos, future paydays and the code — are in the unstructured Hall of Fame forum replaced with uninterrupted openness and honest reflection.
At the ring ceremony Friday, and with the exception of Bettman (the sitting commissioner isn’t ready for his tell-all, of course), it was untapped for as long as needed with St. Louis, Brodeur, O’Ree, Hefford and Russian legend Alexander Yakushev.
Still it wasn’t enough.
‘Here you go, Marty’
One always anointed, the other an anomaly, the two most recognizable players enshrined in the Hall of Fame — both entering on first ballots — hail from the same region, but Brodeur and St. Louis took completely different paths towards their permanent places in hockey lore.
Take 1993, for example.
With the touted first-round draft pick starting out on a Calder Trophy season for the New Jersey Devils, which would set in motion the winningest and arguably greatest goaltending career in NHL history, the undrafted and undersized St. Louis was a freshman at the University of Vermont, trying still to get noticed.
It wasn’t until seven years later did St. Louis finally receive his fair shake when John Tortorella and the Tampa Bay Lightning finally saw in him what others couldn’t. By that time Brodeur was already a Stanley Cup champion and perennial All-Star taking the path of least resistance to the Hall of Fame.
While St. Louis eventually rose to superstardom, winning a Stanley Cup, a Hart Trophy and representing Canada internationally, it was though he always toiled, and Brodeur smiled.
“Always smiling,” St. Louis said, with a hint of envy in his tone.
Consider their “Welcome to the NHL” moments.
While Brodeur shared a story about receiving a reminder after a tough outing early in his career that resulted in a 6-6 tie that he could still deliver a point on his worst day, St. Louis recalled the time he made the mistake of leaning into Rick Tocchet at the faceoff dot and was slashed in the throat. “I was like, alright,” St. Louis laughed. “I’m messing with the wrong marine here.”
But as much as it seemed to come easy for Brodeur — and didn’t for St. Louis — the roles were reversed in the moments the two found out they were Hall of Fame-bound.
Awaiting the call while at a prospect camp with the St. Louis Blues, Brodeur said, mostly joking, that he started to a get a bit worried after having to tell more and more people at the rink that morning that he hadn’t yet received the call.
Meanwhile for St. Louis, he said he just happened to be walking into the house after working outside for most of the day at his lakefront property when his phone, charging in the kitchen, started to ring.
There was absolutely no stress in the moments that immediately preceded the discovery that he was a first-ballot selection. The irony wasn’t lost on him.
“Everything I have gone through it seemed hard, right? It wasn’t a given. Now the biggest honour it’s kinda like, ‘here you go, Marty.'”
Soon after pulling the phone out of the kitchen outlet, St. Louis wasn’t so cool. Included in the flood of congratulatory text messages threatening the full charge was one signed “Mario.”
“I was like, ‘Mario? Who’s Mario?'”
Checking the digits was all St. Louis needed to conclude the investigation, as he spotted two sixes in succession.
“That was pretty cool, that Mario took the time and texted me,” he said.
“He was my idol, you know.”
‘Did Willie get in?’
A Brooklyn lawyer with a background in basketball, there is no confusing Bettman’s contributions to the sport. His impact is best measured in dollars.
Through shrewd deals with the players and television networks, local and global outreach, a wave of expansion that should bring in over $1.15 billion alone, and most recently now venturing into sports gambling partnerships, revenue has grown exponentially and looks to continue climbing under Bettman’s watch.
His method hasn’t always been popular; prioritizing the owners’ interests with his ruthless, unsympathetic negotiation tactics has often come at the expense of players and fans. That business acumen and foresight, however, has undoubtedly been the driving force behind the league’s health.
A glimpse of that vision was observed at the Hall of Fame on Friday. Just not in that typical money-making manner you would expect.
Willie O’Ree’s induction into the Hall of Fame corresponds with the 60th anniversary of him breaking the NHL’s colour barrier as a member of the Boston Bruins. It also marks 20 years since Bettman reached out to O’Ree and offered him the opportunity to be the face of the NHL’s launching diversity campaign and spread the message of inclusion.
“He saw in me what he felt the NHL (needed),” O’Ree said.
On the flip side, understanding O’Ree’s importance to the sport and the NHL many years before his campaign built up the steam that it did, ostensibly Bettman saw an opportunity.
While integrating the NHL should have always been enough for the Hall of Fame committee, by making him the NHL’s diversity ambassador the commissioner provided O’Ree with the platform to expand his credentials as a builder, and in turn help sway a committee charged with upholding the lofty standards for inclusion.
Perhaps this is giving Bettman a little too much credit.
Hearing both of them speak, though, it’s fitting that they enter the Hall of Fame together.
Said O’Ree: “We have had a very, very close relationship.”
So much so that Bettman was blindly focused on O’Ree’s fate when he received the call from the Hall of Fame committee.
Bettman said, while at a retirement luncheon, he only answered his phone because he needed to know if O’Ree was included in an important “milestone” year — six decades after breaking the colour barrier in the NHL.
Surprised to learn that the call was about his own induction, Bettman said he had to ask a second time if O’Ree was selected before hanging up the phone and letting his accomplishment soak in.
“He doesn’t know yet,” said the committee member on the other line, perhaps reluctant to break protocol.
“Don’t tell him.”
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