The Hockey Hall of Fame officially welcomed their Class of 2018 tonight in Toronto. Joining the immortals and legends this year were NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, both in the Builder’s category. And in the players category, former Tampa Bay Lightning Stanley Cup champion Martin St. Louis, women’s player and four-time Olympic gold medalist Jayna Hefford, Soviet great Aleksander Yakushev and Devils great Martin Brodeur.
Chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame (and former Colorado Rockies player) Lanny McDonald introduced us to the ceremony. He thanked the past inductees, executives and current players who make the Hall possible and got the festivities underway.
Bettman was the first to be introduced. Wayne Gretzky presented him with his plaque. It was mentioned that he is the “longest serving commissioner in the major North American pro sports” at 25 years. Bettman ran through his fellow inductees and talked up their accomplishments. He thanked all those he worked with in the NHL offices and the players. He was praised by others, rightfully so, for growing the game in the United States by putting teams in the Sun Belt and he talked about that a bit. He did apologize for the work stoppages – sort of – he said that while he regrets them, they were basically a necessary evil and needed to happen to get the game in a better place. Bettman also noted that he was present at both St. Louis and Brodeur’s jersey retirement ceremonies. He mentioned that if you would have told him, a Jewish kid from Queens, that he would be in charge of the NHL when he was younger, he would never have believed it.
Following Bettman’s induction, Don Fehr of the NHLPA was shown in a video wishing congratulations to all of the inductees.
St. Louis was next up. In a nice moment, players from the current Tampa Bay Lightning (including Steven Stamkos, who St. Louis did play with) made the trip in and stood by the side of the stage during his induction. The Lightning are in Buffalo tomorrow and stopped in to pay tribute to the man who won the Stanley Cup, Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy all in the same season (2004). Former Devil Dave Andreychuk (who was the captain of the Lightning Stanley Cup team) was on hand to present him with his plaque. St. Louis was famously undrafted out of the University of Vermont because he was too small. He was signed as a free agent by the Calgary Flames and played a handful of games for them before being signed by the Lightning in 2000. Like Bettman, St. Louis was a symbol of determination and hard work.
Next up was an In Memorium piece about hockey people lost in the last year. Among them were former NHL President John Ziegler.
Following the In Memorium and prior to O’Ree going in, we had the Elmer Ferguson Award for print journalism and the Foster Hewitt Award for broadcast journalism. The Elmer Ferguson Award went to Larry Brooks, who, in addition to his work with the New York Post covering the Devils, Rangers and Islanders, also worked as the Devils’ Vice President of Communications and a radio broadcaster for ten years. Maple Leafs broadcaster Joe Bowen won the Foster Hewitt Award.
O’Ree was then up at the podium. He spoke about breaking the NHL’s color barrier in 1958 while with the Boston Bruins and how he did not realize he was doing so at the time. He just wanted to play hockey. He had a dream to make it to the NHL and he achieved it through hard work and perseverance, much like Bettman and St. Louis. He then talked about former Devils’ assistant coach Lou Vairo recommending him to the NHL in 1996 beginning a process that would see him spearhead a diversity program for the league and have the Willie O’Ree Community Award presented in his honor. He is also a member of the Order of Canada. Edmonton Oilers great Grant Fuhr presented him with his plaque.
Next up, the new members of the IIHF Hall of Fame were shown, among them Team USA great Chris Chelios.
This segued into Yakushev’s speech, which he did in Russian with a translator interpreting things for the audience. Yakushev won Olympic gold in 1972 and 1976 and was a 2003 IIHF Hockey Hall of Famer and a 1970 Russian Hockey Hall of Famer, but is best known in Canada for the 1972 Summit Series between the Soviets and Canadians. He never got to play in the NHL, but did play his entire career for one team: Spartak Moscow and he is the first Hockey Hall of Famer from that particular team. The great Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak, the first Russian player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, presented him with his plaque.
Next was a brief review of the Hall of Fame’s 75/25 celebrations at Maple Leaf Gardens. This being the 75th anniversary of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the 25th anniversary of its current location in Toronto, a gala was held to help raise funds and awareness of its programs.
Hefford was next. A member of Team Canada in international play since 1997, she scored the gold medal clinching goal in 2002 in Salt Lake City for the Canadians. She is a four-time Olympic gold medalist, who also played several seasons in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, of which she now serves as commissioner. She told stories about how she had to play on boys teams growing up in Kingston, Ontario because there was no girls hockey at that time. That has changed, as she noted, and women’s hockey has grown by leaps and bounds since she was young. She also made note of the theme of this year’s class: dedication, perseverance and hard work, something she shared with O’Ree, St. Louis and Bettman. Fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Geraldine Heaney presented her with her plaque.
Martin Brodeur was the next inductee. Marty was quick and to the point. He thanked his coaches, including Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Pat Burns, his goaltending coach Jacques Caron and Lou Lamoriello. He also thanked the owners of the Devils, both past (Dr. John McMullen) to present (Josh Harris and David Blitzer). He mentioned how his father, who was the team photographer for the Montreal Canadiens and the Montreal Expos helped him learn how to carry himself like a professional. He told a story about how he was ready to quit hockey as a teen after being cut from a AA team and his older brother practically dragged him back to the rink. He had a decision to make in his first years of hockey: become a goalie or a forward and he chose goalie because he would spend more time on the ice, getting to play the entire game. Lastly, he thanked the Devils fans and fans around the world who have cheered him over the years. Former Devils teammates and fellow Hall of Famers Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer presented him with his plaque.
It was a good ceremony overall. Seeing Brodeur go in was, of course, a highlight for this Devils fan, but each individual inductee brought something special to the event. The theme of the night of hard work and dedication was pretty neat in that it wove through each of the inductees’ careers. Patrik Elias is in his first year of eligibility next year. Hopefully we get to do this again then.