The Hockey Hall of Fame pretty much started with a blank slate when it came to this year’s induction class. It gave the Hall a chance to induct Eric Lindros seven years after he was eligible and Rogie Vachon 31 years after his first eligibility.
The Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee, you’d have to think, just can’t help itself. Try as it might, it is simply unable to resist the urge to act like an old boys’ network. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that it’s made up of 18 white guys, the youngest of whom is 50 years old.
With a blank slate due to the fact that there were no first-time eligible players who were worthy of induction, the committee righted a wrong by finally inducting Eric Lindros seven years after one of the most dominant players of his generation was eligible. Sergei Makarov, a talented winger in the former Soviet Union and a vital cog on one of the most dominant teams in the history of the game. Another solid choice. Tough to argue the induction in the builders’ category with Pat Quinn, a career coach who didn’t win the Stanley Cup, but was the only coach in history lead a team to a World Cup, Olympic gold medal and World Junior Championship.
And then, well then the selection committee added another player to what will from now on be affectionately known as the Bob Pulford-Clark Gillies-Dick Duff-Bernie Federko wing of the institution by deeming Rogie Vachon a Hall of Famer, a full 31 years after his first year of eligibility. Evidently, the committee ignored Vachon’s brilliance for three decades and felt it was time to make things right. And for the fourth time in the seven years the Hall of Fame has been inducting women players, none was inducted.
Let’s get one thing straight here. Rogie Vachon did not ask to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame so there is no denigrating him when his induction is criticized. We point it out because the credibility of a Hall of Fame is only as strong as the people who are in it. The Hall of Fame should be reserved for the truly great players in the history of the game, not just the very good ones. Vachon was a very good player who toiled for years in a market where he was largely ignored and he was sensational in the 1976 Canada Cup, where he backstopped Canada to the championship and was named his team’s MVP and the all-star goalie in the first true best-on-best tournament ever held.
But Vachon is also the guy former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach referred to as a “Jr. B goalie,” prior to the 1967 Stanley Cup final in which his Maple Leafs upset the Canadiens and prevented Montreal from having a second string of five straight Stanley Cup runs. Vachon played for three Stanley Cup winners, but was basically a spectator for two of them, in 1968 and 1971. In fact, in 1971, he lost his job late in the season to Ken Dryden, an unknown college kid who had played all of six NHL games before the playoffs started.
He was very, very good for the Canadiens in 1969, going 7-1 in the playoffs before breaking his finger in the second round before leaving it to Worsley to backstop the Canadiens in the final against an overmatched St. Louis Blues team. But one Stanley Cup and one tournament championship, playing both times for some of the greatest teams ever assembled is not really a body of work that screams Hall of Fame. If it wanted to induct a Quebec-based goaltender, it might have wanted to consider Kim St-Pierre, one of the most decorated goaltenders in the history of the women’s game. If they were looking for a skater, Danielle Goyette would have been a good choice.
However, it could no longer ignore Lindros who acknowledged that, “things had a better feel to them this year.” There are players in the Hall of Fame with more Stanley Cups, more career points and more personal accolades, but few of them have ever matched Lindros for the combination of talent and physicality that he brought to the game. There was sure to be blowback from the hockey establishment for some of the decisions he made during his career, but in retrospect, most of those turned out to be either right or ones that blazed a trail for others to follow.
Lindros had a 40-goal season in his first year despite missing 21 games. And from the time he came into the league as a rookie in 1992-93 until his contract dispute with the Flyers seven years later, he was either the best or one of the best players in the league. His points-per-game total of 1.14 is far superior to Cam Neely, a player to whom he has often been compared and who is also in the Hall of Fame.
“Sometimes you get thinking back and wonder, ‘What if,’ ” Lindros said about his seven-year wait. “It kind of feels full circle. I play hockey a couple of times a week just to try to fit into the jeans and to have this honor right here at the end of things when my game is certainly on downslope is a great feeling and a great honor.”
Makarov is in the Hall of Fame based more on his international accolades than what he accomplished in the NHL, but considering he wasn’t able to play in the best league in the world until he was 31, that’s as it should be. Makarov’s NHL body of work was certainly a good one, but he made his name playing on arguably the best line on arguably the best team in international hockey history.
Quinn, meanwhile, will be inducted posthumously and while, like Lindros, he never won a Stanley Cup, he was the NHL’s coach of the year twice and had a lot of success at the international level. “This was something that I had asked my dad about before,” said Quinn’s daughter, Kalli, who spoke on the family’s behalf. “And he looked at me like, ‘You’re crazy. That’s something that I’ve never even thought of or never even think would happen.’ ”