TORONTO - This should bother Pat Quinn. We are now agreeing on matters of importance.
It should also trouble Scotty Bowman and Bill Torrey and Serge Savard and Colin Campbell and Harry Sinden.
For years, they have made their Hockey Hall of Fame selections and like an annual rite of summer, I have fervently disagreed with their choices.
OK, there was the year Mark Messier, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens and Ron Francis got in — and who could argue with that? And there was the year Brian Leetch, Steve Yzerman and Brett Hull got in. There wasn’t any dissent over that.
But when they elected Dino Ciccarelli last year, I asked why not Doug Gilmour?
When they inducted Igor Larionov, the obvious question was why not Sergei Makarov?
Year after year, they would induct, I would scream about the choices made. (I suppose over time the selection committee and Clark Gillies, the worst Hall of Fame choice since Bob Pulford, have come to hate my views on the subject.)
Then came Tuesday in something of a wild card year for the Hall of Fame. The only first-year player who seemed like a sure thing was Ed Belfour and his off-ice regularities made his first-ballot selection in some doubt. The rest of the class, was well, wide open — with seven or eight really legitimate candidates — and only three spots to fill.
In Sunday’s column, like I do most years, I wrote who I would vote for if I had a ballot. You name names not knowing which players will be nominated because the voting and the nominations are all handled behind closed doors. No vote totals are released. No finalists are announced. The Hockey Hall announces who is in, and not much else about the process.
They want the focus on who is going in, not who isn’t.
My ballot in Sunday’s column began with Belfour, the only real slam-dunk choice of this year’s class. You can argue just about anybody in the Hall getting in, you can’t argue Belfour if you watched him play in Chicago, Dallas or Toronto and not in San Jose. He was the consummate competitor. He had a Tim Thomas mentality with the most economical style of any goalie who ever played. Belfour, a coach once told me, never had to reach to make a great save, because he was never out of position to be forced to do so.
Belfour was the first player announced on Tuesday, which was both appropriate and alphabetical.
The Doug Gilmour inclusion comes in his sixth year of eligibility. The wait, he will say now, was worth it. Gilmour wasn’t a player who could be entirely measured by his impressive statistics. He was, for most of his career, much more than that. He was a champion, a leader, the best defensive player on virtually every team he played on, a beloved teammate and an assist machine who made 35-goal scorers like Dave Andreychuk into 50-goal scorers on his wing. He was a playoff leader in St. Louis, a Stanley Cup champion in Calgary and at his absolute best as a Maple Leaf. No one — not Dave Keon, not Frank Mahovlich, not Mats Sundin — had seasons like Gilmour had in coach Pat Burns’ first two years in Toronto.
Joe Nieuwendyk is both an establishment choice — he’s now one of them — and a players’ choice. Often, those two camps don’t mix. But he’s popular with both sides. He began his career as a 50-goal scorer out of Cornell. The first piece I ever wrote on him was on the day after the Calgary Flames drafted him. He was selected with a draft pick that came to the Flames in the trading away of their best known player, Kent Nilsson. The Calgary Herald headline read: “Joe Who?”
After that, he became Joe New. Now he is Joe Hall of Famer.
Of all the choices made Tuesday, the selection of Mark Howe excited me the most. For years, Howe has been overlooked by the Hall voters and for years I have been making noise about how he was being ignored. Last year, I got a tip that Howe had been nominated and had an excellent chance of being elected. He was nominated: He lost out by a vote or two.
Unlike the Bert Blylevens of baseball or those who lobby on their own behalf, Howe would never go that way. He wouldn’t politic for inclusion, wouldn’t talk about his accomplishments. He wanted the Hall for really one reason. He wanted it for his father. He wanted it while Gordie Howe was still alive.
He got that wish. Today, the Hall of Fame selection should take a bow — or shake their heads. They’re in agreement with me and if they don’t find that troubling, I do.