November 09, 2009
Leahy and I thought about adding a "Best Hall of Fame Class of the last decade" list to our end-of-2000s project, but opted to leave it out.
Few would argue that the Class of 2002 was the weakest: Bernie Federko, Clark Gillies, Rod Langway and the late Roger Neilson. The only point of debate would be the strongest of the decade, which comes down to two classes. (All due respect to the Ray Bourque/Paul Coffey/Larry Murphy/Cliff Fletcher class of 2004.)
2007: Mark Messier, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Ron Francis, Jim Gregory.
2009: Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Brian Leetch, Lou Lamoriello
You've have to give the nod to this year's class as the best of the decade, no?
Coming up, some thoughts on a remarkable class of hockey legends, entering immortality this evening in Toronto. (With Wayne Gretzky in the hizzle!)
It was that shot.
The one that produced 741 career goals. The puck would leave the stick in a blur and find its target with incredible accuracy no matter where Hull uncorked it. He was a Howitzer on the ice; the kind of guy who would fire a wrister from 10 feet out on a breakaway because it was going to be more lethal than some silly deke.
I'll remember him most as a St. Louis Blues sniper because of that wonderful time when a hockey fan could answer an NBA fan's "Stockton to Malone" with "Oates to Hull" without a second thought. It's still one of the greatest center/winger combos I've ever seen.
Hull won two Stanley Cups; with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002 and with the Dallas Stars in 1999. (Sure, his foot was in the crease against the Buffalo Sabres, but have you heard there was a super-secret memo that made it OK?) That's on the ice; off the ice, he was an outspoken quote machine, an ambassador for the game and a player whose outsized personality is still sorely missed among the elite stars in the NHL.
Examples aplenty from the Blues in this number retirement video:
It was that jersey:
For whatever reason, the Steve Yzerman Detroit Red Wings sweater was as iconic as any during his playing days. Like Mario's or Gretzky's, it was something more than a team jersey; it implied a vibe of cool, a feeling of dignified stature that transcended the usual gear.
Yzerman has Hall of Fame stats, a Hall of Fame résumé and a Hall of Fame trophy case. But there's something greater than his point totals going on here, and The Chief at the aptly named Abel To Yzerman attempted to capture it today:
There are players who've been voted in who probably felt it was owed to them. There are "captains" who stayed too long, wore out their welcome in at least three different cities, loved the attention, begged for it, thrived on it, then missed it so much created ways to keep their name out there....like inventing a "leadership award" and finding a hygiene product to sponsor it. There are others who's spectacular play earned their admission to the Hall, but their lack of character made you cringe to consider their place among the greats like Howe and Beliveau.
Steve Yzerman? He's never felt like hockey owed him jack squat. And his character is spotless. He is the icon of our age. A hero in a time when defining one is nearly impossible.
Ted Lindsay called Stevie Y "everything a great athlete should be." End of conversation.
It was the perseverance.
Of the inductees, Robitaille's prime is the one I'm least familiar with as an East Coast, Wales Conference hockey fan. But over the years, you learn that "Lucky" doesn't just apply to the teams honored to have one of the best left wingers in NHL history on their rosters; it defines the career of a also-ran draft choice who became a Hall of Famer.
Think about it: He was taken 171st overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 1984. (Ahead of Gary Suter, no less; nice scouting back then.) The next five players taken at No. 171 in the ensuing NHL Entry Drafts: Jamie Huscroft, Scott McCormack, Craig Daly, Dan Wiebe, Jeff St. Laurent.
A Canadian reporter who had written about him years ago recalled hearing of scouting reports that seriously doubted whether Robitaille would succeed in the NHL despite his high-scoring exploits with the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"Apparently there was someone that wrote that on the report. ‘This kid will never make it because he's slower than a Zamboni," Robitaille said, laughing.
Like Luc said at the HOF: "It was a really fast one. It was a turbo Zamboni."
Here's a schmaltzy remembrance of Luc Robitaille, he of the 668 goals and 1,394 points in the NHL:
It was the consistency.
What Leetch represented while playing with the New York Rangers was a constant amidst a franchise that went from a 54-year curse to an era-defining Cup win to a high-priced Titanic that sunk out of the playoffs for several seasons. He was a Conn Smythe winner in 1994 with Mark Messier and the team's leading scorer in 2001 with Mark Messier Part Deux.
He also spanned eras as a defenseman, as he recalled with the National Post:
"I remember coaches saying, 'If Leetchy is up on the play, you have to back him up,' " he said. "And then it went to, 'Leetchy, don't get up in the play,' because we had to do the trap or something. I found sitting back difficult. My strength is not standing still and reading the play. It went back and forth."
What I wrote when Leetch was announced for the Hall still stands:
With apologies to Joe Mullen, Chris Chelios(notes) and Pat LaFontaine, Leetch is the greatest American-born player in NHL history; and the first U.S. player to ever win the Conn Smythe when the Rangers won the Cup in 1994. Known for his offense (247 goals, 781 assists, 1,028 points) but he won two Norris Trophies as a total-package defenseman. I hated him as a Devils fan. That's the best compliment I can give.
Of course, it turns out he might have been a Devil at the end of his career, but that's neither here nor there. Speaking of which ...
It's the debt of gratitude.
There wouldn't be a lot of things had it not been for Lou Lamoriello. The Prudential Center. The New Jersey Devils' name on the Stanley Cup three times. Or, for that matter, the New Jersey Devils here in 2009.
But as Tom Gulitti wrote, his contributions go beyond turning a Mickey Mouse franchise into a perennial winner:
How important to you were your contributions to USA Hockey?
"I'm proud of our country. I went through the era where U.S. college players were not looked upon (to play in the NHL) and rightly so. It wasn't until 1980 when we won the Olympics that they really were given the opportunity to have success and recognition and really Herbie and that 80 Olympic team opened the door for college players because I was coaching at that time. So, I saw that opportunity come. I saw it coming, but that gave it a chance.
"I was fortunate to be part of that era and be a part of sports festivals for USA Hockey. I can still think of the players that were with me. Ed Olczyk, I had at 16 in the sports festival. The Tommy Barrassos that were coming to Providence (as recruits) and Bobby Carpenter, even Brian Lawton, who ended up going pro. Then, working with them on USA team. Even Monday is special with you've got Brian Leetch and Brett Hull from the '96 World Cup Team. The World Cup team was one of the bigger days for USA Hockey."
Like most Devils fans, I've had a love/hate relationship with Lamoriello. Loved the success, hated the non-marketing. Loved the genius moves like Kurvers-for-what-would-be-Niedermayer and the Scott Stevens arbitration win; hated some of the baffling post-lockout transactions. Loved the painstaking detail and care Lamoriello took in micro-managing this team; hated when that micro-managing would manifest itself in an itchy coaching trigger finger.
But that's Lamoriello. You swallow your doubts, push aside your trepidation and then stare at the standings as you try and figure out how, once again, the New Jersey Devils look like a playoff team. As the name of the blog says: In Lou We Trust.