SUN Hockey Pool

Famers almost perfect

KEN FIDLIN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

The Hockey Hall of Fame's class of 2007 was scattered around the shrine's inner sanctum, holding court. The Shooter, The Hitter, The Playmaker, The Man and The Builder.

It would be disrespectful of all the greats who came before to say this is the best class in history. It's enough that this 2007 group is tied for first in any comparative study. Each of the four players inducted came into the NHL within a three-year span starting with The Man, Mark Messier, in 1979.

The Shooter, Al MacInnis and The Playmaker, Ron Francis, arrived in 1981 and The Hitter, Scott Stevens, a year later. All of them stayed for more than 22 years (in Messier's case, 25), and all had a huge impact on the game and the teams they played for.

Jim Gregory, The Builder, has been around hockey all his life, managing various junior teams before joining the Maple Leafs to eventually become their GM in the late 1970s. At 72, he still is a senior vice-president of hockey operations for the NHL.

In this sportswriting dodge we're always trying to get athletes to put their crowning achievements into some sort of perspective at a time when the athletes themselves are living the moment. For most, the assignment is impossible.

"Talk to me when my career is over and I'm able to look back," they'll say.

That is what is so special about the Hockey Hall of Fame's induction weekend.

"It's kind of like having a wedding without the wedding," said Francis, whose 1,249 career assists are second only to Wayne Gretzky.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to thank the people who have mattered most. It's busy, but there's also time to sit back and reminisce. It doesn't all happen in a flash. For me, the moment when it really hit me was (Saturday) when we were all invited for cocktails before the (Rangers-Leafs) game. I walked into the room and was suddenly surrounded by all these great Hall of Famers and it struck me just how special this is."

Even Hall of Famers at some time have to ask themselves 'What's next?' when their careers are over.

MacInnis already is working in an executive role with the St. Louis Blues and Messier has aspirations of doing the same.

"I asked myself that very question in 1984 when we won the Stanley Cup," Messier said. "It was a dream come true and all of a sudden I'm 23 years old and had accomplished my lifetime goal. Then a couple months later, I'm left with this feeling of 'Now what?' "

"I quickly realized that 'Now what?' was to go back and win it again. At some point, I think I would like the chance to do it again in another capacity."

MacInnis had the hardest shot in the game, a lethal thing that frightened not only opposing goalies and shotblockers but sometimes frightened MacInnis himself.

"How would you feel if you ended somebody's career with a shot?" was a thought that went through MacInnis' mind.

COMPASSION FOR KORAB

"One night early in my career we were in Buffalo and big Jerry Korab came out for the block. I wound up and in that last split second, all I could see was his face and I backed off the shot. After the game I see him in the hall and he comes over.

" 'Thanks, kid,' he said. "

That howitzer found the net 340 times in MacInnis' career.

"I never used to visualize hitting the net. I always visualized shooting the puck through the net. Through the net. As time went on and goalie equipment got so much bigger to the point where you couldn't see the net, I said to myself 'If there's no hole there, make one.' "

In this class and in this generation, nobody mastered the art of open-ice checking with such devastating efficiency as did Stevens. The list of his victims goes on and on, players knocked senseless by clean, well-timed shoulders. Perhaps Eric Lindros is the most famous, but fellow Hall inductee Francis was another, belted into next week during a 2001 playoff series.

This was not a one-way street.

Stevens himself remembers his own rubber-leg moment when Brian Smolinski caught him with his head down coming out from behind the net with the puck.

"The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the trainers' room," Stevens said. "It was just the way he caught me. He's not a malicious guy at all. It was just perfect."

Perfect. You can't say that about anybody, even Hall of Famers. But this class might be as close as it gets.


Videos

Photos