TORONTO – Their stellar playing days made it an easy choice for the Hall. But their hockey careers are far from over.
Ron Francis, Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis entered the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday in their first year of eligibility, automatic inclusions that surprised absolutely no one.
And they’re not done writing their hockey stories.
Francis and MacInnis are already actively involved in the next chapter of their hockey lives with NHL front-office positions, while Messier and Stevens are contemplating following their lead.
“It’s the love we have for the game and the passion we have for the game,” explained MacInnis, vice-president of hockey operations with the St. Louis Blues.
“The game has been so good for all of us over the last 25 years that we feel we can maybe give something back to the game, give back to our respective organizations.”
The millions of dollars they made as modern-day NHLers could afford them a work-free retirement in some exotic locale. But hockey’s in their blood.
“Everything I have in my life is because of the game,” said Francis, now assistant GM and director of player development with the Carolina Hurricanes. “So it’s an opportunity for me to give something back, which I’m glad to do.
“I took a few years (after retiring) and got away from it and at the end of the day, I felt this was what I know best, this is what I feel most comfortable with.”
All of which means the four star players have much more in common with fellow 2007 inductee Jim Gregory than first meets the eye. Gregory, inducted into the builders’ category Monday, was the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1969-70 to 1978-79.
A longtime NHL employee dubbed the heart and soul of the league’s head office by commissioner Gary Bettman, Gregory finds it interesting to see some of the modern-day stars continue to work in the game. Joining Francis and MacInnis in front-office roles are recently retired stars Steve Yzerman in Detroit, Luc Robitaille in Los Angeles, Doug Gilmour in Toronto and Brett Hull in Dallas.
“In the past going back to the era where Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard and those players, the really great players didn’t seem to go into management or at least not right away,” said Gregory. “I told these fellas (Francis, Messier, MacInnis and Stevens), if you get your heart into the executive part of the business the way you did as a player, you’ll feel like you should pay to go to work.
“And they all have a passion.”
Messier’s passion was on full display during his emotional induction speech. He fought back tears for much of his speech and had to stop to compose himself on several occasions.
Messier clearly wants back in the game. He made headlines last year when he mentioned he’d like to be an NHL GM. But nothing has come of it to this point.
“There’s no imminent plan, I’m not pursuing anything at this particular time, but I’m definitely going to be looking to step back in some capacity, probably sooner rather than later,” said Messier, a six-time Stanley Cup winner with the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers.
“To me it’s an exciting time for me because it’s starting all over again.”
He’d obviously love for that opportunity to be with the Rangers but says he’s willing to listen to other teams since New York has a pretty good GM in veteran Glen Sather.
“Glen could be there another 10 years, he really could,” said Messier. “And you know what? He deserves to stay there as long as he wants and do whatever he wants. He’s earned that.”
Perhaps a job with his old buddies Wayne Gretzky in Phoenix or Kevin Lowe in Edmonton?
“Wayne, Kevin – I’ve got so many friends I played with that are in the game right now,” said Messier. “Yeah, sure, why not? You know and understand each other on and off the ice. You have a healthy respect for one another. The built-in philosophies are already there from years of experience, and not only that, the amount of fun it would be able to do it together.”
Stevens, meanwhile, has an open invitation from New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello to jump on board but at this point hasn’t figured out just what he wants to do.
“Yes, we’ll see,” said Stevens, who leads the NHL in all-time games played by a defenceman with 1,635. “Coaching is very demanding, I’ve been around great coaches and I know what it takes to be a coach and the time that it takes. I don’t know if I’m ready for those long hours.
“So maybe something else in hockey that could benefit the team. We’ll see what happens. Lou has been very good to me. When I’m ready to do something, he’ll be there to listen and help me out.”
Stevens has helped out the Devils in a few practices over the last year while he figures out his exact future.
“The type of individual that he is both as a person and as a player, I mean, what more can you ask?,” Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told The Canadian Press on Monday. “There’s so many different things that he can do. What he has to do is decide exactly what he wants. Because once he’s committed, look out.”
MacInnis was a major cog in Calgary’s lone NHL championship in 1989 but yearns to help deliver a Stanley Cup in St. Louis in his new capacity.
“I’ve said all along that I would have loved to have won a Stanley Cup in St. Louis as a player,” said MacInnis, a native of Port Hood, N.S. “The fans there are such a committed group. They’ve been looking for one since 1967. When I went there in ’94 the fans were so good to me, and I have the opportunity now to help out a little bit with (GM) Larry Pleau and (president) John Davidson.”
He has a newfound respect for the amount of work involved in an NHL front office. He remembers as a player looking up during practice at his old GMs sitting in the stands and thinking it wasn’t that big a deal to make a trade here and there or negotiate the odd contract. Boy was he wrong.
“It’s such a commitment, you’re either in or you’re out. It’s 24/7,” said MacInnis. “I really admire the guys that are in it.”
Francis, second all-time in assists in NHL history, says the chase for the ultimate prize motivates him just as much now in his new job.
“You play this game, you’re tremendously competitive, the challenge is always to win the Stanley Cup, and this is just a different way of going about it,” said the native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
“It still fires up those competitive juices.”