The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014 marks the first time that four different countries have been represented in one cohort. Mike Modano, Dominik Hasek, Peter Forsberg and Rob Blake all distinguished themselves in both the NHL and international competition.
Take a close look at the four men who will be inducted in the players’ category of the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday night. You’ll see something you’ve never seen before, and may never see again.
Four players, four different countries represented. A Hall of Fame cohort that includes Rob Blake, Mike Modano, Peter Forsberg and Dominik Hasek belongs in the debate of the best of all-time. We’re not going to get into that debate, but hey, the 1972 class included Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Hap Holmes and Hooley Smith. But there is no Hall of Fame induction group that represents the global reach of the game more prominently than this one.
And there is not a group that has been inducted that can match the combined NHL-international hockey credentials the 2014 class has. Three of them – Forsberg, Hasek and Blake – won Olympic gold medals. Forsberg and Blake are part of the Triple Gold Club, the exclusive club of 25 players who have won an Olympic gold, a World Championship and a Stanley Cup. Modano is considered among the greatest players to ever wear the colors of the United States in international competition and was a key member of the 1996 World Cup team that defeated Canada in the best-of-three final.
Another thing unites all the players. None of them ever expected any of this to happen. And while few players grow up confident they’ll play in the Hall of Fame, there might not be a group that was more of a longshot when the players came into the league. Hasek didn’t play an NHL game until he was 25 and began his career as Ed Belfour’s backup. Blake was a fourth-round pick who flew under the radar after playing three years of U.S. college hockey. Forsberg was drafted in 1991, five picks after Eric Lindros, a consensus projection for the Hall of Fame when he was 18 who hasn’t found his way there yet. And Modano, while supremely talented, started his NHL career by thumbing his nose at the NHL establishment by not taking the first contract offered to him by the Minnesota North Stars.
All four were on hand at the Hall of Fame Friday afternoon, along with referee Bill McCreary, who was inducted into the officials’ wing, and Line Gignac-Burns, the widow of former NHL coaching legend Pat Burns, whose induction came far too late for the liking of many people. All four of the players reflected on their careers and how they began so inauspiciously.
Forsberg, it has been said many times, was a player who was born to play hockey. His combination of supreme talent and recklessness made him a feared opponent, and also contributed to truncating his career. Even Forsberg marvels at how his on- and off-ice personas so differed. Good friend and fellow Hall of Famer Mats Sundin often marveled at Forsberg’s compete level.
“I never really thought about being an NHL star,” Forsberg said. “I never really thought I was going to be good enough. I was really a humble and shy guy. All I thought about was the next game and I didn’t care about anything else. It was really weird, actually. I was the most quiet guy and I didn’t say a word off the ice, but as soon as I got on the ice, I didn’t think about anything but winning the game and doing everything to try to win. I don’t know what happened to me. I would say not until I was 28 or 29 did I figure I was pretty decent at hockey.”
That competitive fire always burned within Forsberg, but there were people who sometimes needed to bring it out of him. One who did was Marc Crawford, who demanded Forsberg play hard every game. Forsberg recalled one night when the Avalanche was down 1-0 after the first period and Crawford walked around the dressing room and stopped at Forsberg’s stall.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘Are you sick Peter?’ “ Forsberg recalled. “And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Are you sure?’ and then he left the room. And I said, ‘OK, I get the point.’ I learned a lot from him about being ready.”
Modano was taken to the moribund North Stars in 1988 after scoring 127 points for the Prince Albert Raiders in the Western League at a pre-Lindros time when most rookies took the contracts that were offered them and kept quiet. But Modano rebuffed the North Stars and got tarred and feathered by the hockey establishment for doing so. Even THN ran a cartoon at Halloween that year that pictured a kid standing at a door with a sheet over his head with the caption, “Honey, it’s the Modano kid. He’s holding out for more!”
Modano’s stance took stones, but once he joined the North Stars, he proved he was worth the contract demands and became the face of the franchise once it moved to Dallas. He also scored more than any American-born player ever (keeping in mind that Brett Hull was born in Canada.)
“It was probably best for me to go back to junior anyway,” Modano said. “You’re going into a tough situation when you’re going to Minnesota after being drafted first.”
Hasek came into the game with sparkling international hockey resume and huge success in the Czech Republic, but nobody knew the gem he was. To be sure, the Blackhawks didn’t, since they played him more in the minors than the NHL, then traded him to Buffalo for Stephane Beauregard and future considerations.
“I never thought about it,” Hasek said of his Hall of Fame career. “I was dreaming about being one day a starting goalie in the NHL. I was sent down to the minors and I was behind Eddie Belfour, who was the Vezina Trophy winner. It’s like a dream, seriously. I was 25 and I never even thought about it.”
Rising from obscurity was a familiar thing for Blake, who played in obscurity at Bowling Green State University and came into the league in 1990-91 with almost no fanfare. But Blake proved his worth immediately, scoring 46 points in his first season and not requiring a single game in the minors. His career as a force at both ends of the ice began that year and continued for two decades. Even Blake himself is a little mystified at how he made it.
“This gives you a good time to reflect on your whole career,” Blake said. “I played three years at Bowling Green and my first year was very average. And I don’t know, but something changed over that summer, whether I matured or developed, but I came back the second year and elevated by play and by the third year I was at the top of that category. I don’t know what it was, but it all kind of came together.”