TORONTO – Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis and Scott Stevens on the same team – now that would have been something.
Hockey fans got a glimpse Sunday afternoon of the four stars in the same uniforms during the Legends Classic on the eve of their induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Messier showed a burst of the speed that helped make him the No. 2 point-getter in NHL history when he broke free down the right wing and planted a shot in a top corner of the net in the final minutes.
Francis, No. 2 in all-time assists, made some crisp passes while being the only player wearing a red helmet. Wendel Clark, Lanny McDonald and some of the others didn’t wear any headgear at all.
MacInnis refrained from blasting smouldering slap shots like the ones that helped put him third in career goals by defencemen. His restraint was much appreciated by Original Six goaltender Bill Ranford, whose reflexes remain quick.
Stevens, the most punishing clean hitter in the sport in his prime, was all but rendered useless because body checking is shunned in this annual laugher that sees a portion of proceeds go to Shoot For a Cure spinal cure research.
For the record, the white-clad Original Six team beat the Expansion side, wearing navy blue and including the four new HHOF players, 12-11, although nobody much cared who won afterwards.
The four new inductees, along with Jim Gregory who goes into the builders’ section, were presented with their HHOF blazers by president Bill Hay and former Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn during pre-game ceremonies.
“This is an unbelievable thrill,” said Gregory.
Francis fans, some of them undoubtedly from his home city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., were out in full force.
“We love you, Ronnie,” a voice in the crowd bellowed as Francis slipped on his blazer.
MacInnis grew up in the Nova Scotia fishing village of Port Hood with five brothers who played hockey, and he learned to slap pucks to gain an edge.
“I just followed in their footsteps,” he said. “The shot gave me the chance to play in the NHL and that’s all I could have asked for.”
Messier came out of the Edmonton-region community of St. Albert to become a great player, and he quickly reminded everyone that many people helped him get into hockey’s shrine.
“We all had the same dream – to win the Stanley Cup,” he said of his beginnings. “Nobody can do it on their own and I owe a lot of my success to the great people that stood beside me.”
Stevens loved the physical approach from Day 1.
“It’s gone by very fast, unfortunately,” the native of Kitchener, Ont., said of his vanished playing days. “It’s hard to believe I’m at this point, but this tops off a great career. I’ll cherish this (weekend) forever.” It was difficult to tell Tiger Williams from Steve Shutt from the Air Canada Centre press box. The former NHLers have a lot less hair than they used to, they are a lot slower than they were in the 1970s, and both wore 22 on the backs of their white Original Six uniforms. Rick Vaive, Mike Gartner and Claude Lemieux skated on the Original Six side with 22 on their sweaters, too.
“It’s always a good time getting together,” Shutt said afterwards. “After the career everybody spreads out across North America so these games are kind of nice to catch up with everybody.
“It doesn’t matter how old they are, the guys are still competitive. It makes it all that much more fun.”
Referee-emcee Ron Hoggarth laid his corny comedy act on thick – as when he cited Cliff Ronning for embarrassing Williams but didn’t make him go to the penalty box.
Claude Lemieux, Steve Shutt and Chris Nilan scored two each and McDonald, Borje Salming and Gary Leeman one each for the Original Sixers, who also got scoreboard help from unidentified members of a Mississauga tyke team who got onto the ice for a few minutes.
Glenn Anderson scored four goals for the Expansion team. Maybe he was reminding members of the hall’s selection committee that they should take another look at his credentials and consider inducted him. Butch Goring added three, Bernie Nicholls two and Messier and Michel Goulet one each.
“It was a pretty decent pace out there for a bunch of old guys,” said Original Six winger Mike Gartner.
Nicholls opened the scoring on a breakaway that was blatantly offside, but Hoggarth was so far behind the play he didn’t notice. Lemieux tied it with a high shot past “Battlin’ Billy” Smith, impressively spry at 56.
Shutt made it two Original Six goals in a row with a low wrist shot, Anderson replied by camping at the front of Ranford’s crease to redirect in a pass, and McDonald reached into the crease to slide in a puck lying behind Smith and put the Original Six side up 3-2 just before the end of the straight-time opening period.
Anderson tied it 3-3 with a breakaway goal scored while a device spewed sparks from the back of his right skate blade. Goulet then redirected in a Ronning pass, and Shutt picked a top corner to make it 4-4.
The Expansionists went up 6-4 when Goring picked a top corner and then finished off a 3-on-0 rush in a two-minute blitz. Defence was lacking all afternoon, and that’s the way they planned it.
It was 7-6 for the Original Six thanks to the tykes, and Nilan lifted a puck past Smith in the closing seconds of the middle period to make it 8-6.
A synchronized skating display by 12 beauties in pink dresses during the second intermission provided a stark contrast to the sputtering efforts of the old-timers.
It was 8-8 after Goring found a gap between Ranford’s leg pads for his third goal and Messier set Nicholls.
Lemieux restored an Original Six lead, 9-8, by smacking a loose puck into an open side of Smith’s net, and Salming made it 10-8 with a low shot that eluded Smith.
Messier countered by picking a top corner. A Leeman deflection and a backhand Nilan slider gave the Original Six an insurmountable lead. Anderson got one back with a backhand slider.
Francis and Messier scored during a shootout display to cap the festivities.