TORONTO - There could and should be Maple Leaf fingerprints all over the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2011 announcement Tuesday. That is, assuming, the right things are done.
And from experience, we know that isnít always the case.
Unfortunately, with the Hockey Hall committee and its behind closed doors voting policy ó answering to no one ó nothing can ever be assumed. Last year we were wrong in believing the late Pat Burns would be inducted in the builderís category ó and for reasons never explained the voters passed on Burns in favour of the late hockey donor, Doc Seaman.
The sad thing is, they could have waited on Seaman. With Burnsí health failing him, the Hall didnít have time to wait. Some 14 days after the induction of last yearís class, Burns succumbed to cancer.
But what a treat it would be this year to see Burns inducted, posthumously, alongside his favourite player, Doug Gilmour. That is more possibility than probability, but Gilmour is among a bevy of strong former Leafs with legitimate Hall of Fame credentials. This is, by some Hall of Fame standards, a soft year, a more challenging year for voters.
There is no Mark Messier or Steve Yzerman in this class. There is no sure thing other than the ex-Leaf goaltender, Ed Belfour, who Iíd bet a billion dollars (his money, not mine) will have his name called Tuesday.
He is the easy vote in the class of 2011. The rest gets complicated.
I advocate for Gilmour, this year and every year, because I covered him as a rookie, watched him closely at his best in St. Louis and Calgary and Toronto, and saw traits in him that canít always be quantified statistically. A year ago, Dino Ciccarelli was inducted, primarily for scoring an uncanny number of goals, 608. But consider starting a hockey team with Ciccarelli in his prime and Gilmour in his prime and you could only pick one player?
The choice would be obvious: Gilmour scored, played defence, killed penalties, led his team, made his teams better, won faceoffs, made his linemates the star. Dave Andreychuk, the former Leaf, who is up for the Hall again this year, was a 30-goal scorer playing with anyone but Gilmour. When he played with Gilmour, he scored at a 50-goal pace in 162 Toronto games. Joe Mullen, who has already been inducted to the Hall, scored 50 goals once. His centre was Gilmour. And over the past 40 years, only three players have led the Stanley Cup playoffs in scoring without their team making it to the final: One of those was Gilmour, who tied with Hall of Fame player Bernie Federko in scoring in 1986.
What an honour it would be for Gilmour and for the Burns family should the coach and his favourite player to be inducted on the very same night.
From a Leaf perspective, Burns was the most successful Toronto coach since Punch Imlach, Gilmour was the Leafsí best player since the days of Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming (both Hall of Famers) and Belfour may have had the single best two Toronto seasons in goal in 2002-04.
After Belfour, Burns and Gilmour, next on my ballot would be Joe Nieuwendyk. He may not have played his best hockey for Toronto but while with the Leafs you got a real sense of the quality of player, quality of man he was. When Nieuwendyk retired, I took an informal poll of hockey players I know asking the same question: Name the most influential teammate you played with. To a man, every player who played with Nieuwendyk, mentioned him. He had that effect on teams, which is why he was a key piece in three Stanley Cup victories on three different teams.
Nieuwendyk had to evolve in his career, beginning as a 50-goal scorer, then developing his game further as his health, back and knees deteriorated. He still ended up with 564 goals ó 19th on the all-time list ó and of the 18 players ahead of him, every eligible player ahead of him, except Andreychuk, is already in the Hall. He is four goals ahead of Guy Lafleur. If not now, when for Nieuwendyk?
The last player on my ballot, if I had one, would be Mark Howe. Iíd put him ahead of legitimate candidates like Adam Oates and Sergei Makarov, and ahead of the longer shots like Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros and Alex Mogilny. There are those who advocate for Phil Housley and Bernie Nicholls and Andreychuk but Iím not one of them.
From my perspective Howe deserves recognition before any of them and has been long overlooked. He was a star in the WHA, a star in the NHL. He was a plus-426 in his NHL career, which includes three years in Hartford. By comparison, the great Paul Coffey was plus-239, and Hall of Famer Larry Murphy, a career plus-69. In one season alone in Philadelphia, Howe was plus 85.
The Hall of Fame announcement comes Tuesday afternoon. The arguments certain to follow.