There can be no debate about the merits of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s class of 2009.
Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and Brian Leetch were named to the Hall as players Tuesday and longtime New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello was accepted in the builder category.
While the credentials of some inductees have been questioned in recent years, this is an all-star group comparable to the best ever. And it comes only two years after the memorable 2007 induction of greats Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis.
“This is a tremendous class of players,” said Yzerman. “It’s a thrill to go in with this group.”
A maximum of four players can go into the Hall each year, and first-year eligible players not chosen by the 18-member selection committee include Alexander Mogilny, who had 1,032 points in 990 career NHL games, and Dave Andreychuk, who scored 640 goals over 23 seasons.
Still waiting from past years are stars like Doug Gilmour, Pavel Bure, Dino Ciccarelli and Phil Housley.
Players must be retired for three years to enter the Hall of Fame unless they receive a special exemption. The official induction ceremony will be held Nov. 9 in Toronto.
This year’s group includes three players from the Detroit Red Wings 2002 Stanley Cup team – Yzerman, Robitaille and Hull.
And two players on the U.S. team that upset Canada in the 1996 World Cup final – Hull and Leetch – and that squad’s general manager Lamoriello.
All four players were offensive engines for their teams, who entered the NHL in the early-to-mid 1980s in a era of firewagon hockey, survived the clutch-and-grab years of the late 1990s and early 2000s and stayed on one year after the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
Like the others, Yzerman debated whether to hang up his skates during the lockout, but wanted one more chance to play.
“After the lockout, I realized it was time to move on,” said Yzerman, who has since moved into management with the Red Wings, his only team for 22 NHL seasons.
The Ottawa native is also Team Canada’s executive director for the 2010 Olympics.
Yzerman is the sixth-leading scorer in NHL history with 1,755 points in 1,514 games. The longtime Red Wings captain led the team to three Stanley Cups and was a member of Canada’s gold medal winning Olympic team in 2002.
“We were (at the Olympics) in 1998 and didn’t win and I don’t think we realized the importance of winning a gold medal in 2002,” he said. “I saw it when I went home, how important it was to Canadian hockey fans.
“At the time, we were just trying to figure out how to win and we got it going as the tournament went on.”
Later that same season came a third Stanley Cup, although he played on a bad knee that he called the beginning of the end of his career.
That 2002 Red Wings were stacked with current and future Hall of Famers, but Yzerman balks at calling it one of the best teams ever.
“I don’t know if you could compare it to the Canadiens of the 1970s, or the Oilers or Islanders (of the 1980s),” he said. “We were all at different stages of our careers.
“Looking back today, it certainly was an amazing team.”
Yzerman also won the Pearson Trophy as the league’s best player as voted by his fellow players in 1989 and captured the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward in 2000. That honour came after a tough period of learning two-way hockey under coach Scotty Bowman and dealing with rumours that the Red Wings were ready to trade him.
Hull was one of the great pure goal-scorers of his era.
He scored 86 goals and was named the league’s most valuable player in 1991. He ended his career with 741 goals and 1,391 points in 1,269 games. He and 1960s great Bobby Hull are the only father-son combination with 600 goals and 1,000 career NHL points each.
“It is hard to put into words what this means to me, especially since I’m joining my father in the Hockey Hall of Fame,” Hull said in a statement. “Simply getting to the NHL was a challenge for me.”
Hull was en route to Montreal, where he is to attend an NHL board of governors meeting on Wednesday on behalf of the Dallas Stars, with whom he scored the controversial toe-in-the-crease overtime goal that won the 1999 Stanley Cup.
He had another disputed goal at the 1996 World Cup when he deflected Leetch’s shot out of the air to start a U.S. rally that gave the Americans a 5-2 win over Canada in the final. Many claim it was a high stick and should have been whistled.
Yzerman said that while Hull was known for scoring, he also worked hard on his defensive game and on penalty killing and that “it was important for him that he be an all-around player.”
Robitaille won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 1987 and went on to amass 1,394 points in 1,431 games, which ranks 10th among all-time scorers. The Montreal native had eight 40-goal seasons and scored 63 goals in 1992-93 with the Los Angeles Kings.
As a junior with the Hull Olympiques, scouts shunned Robitaille because they felt he was slow and he wasn’t drafted until the ninth round. But he had an uncanny nose for the net and was instant star with the Kings playing on a line with Hall of Fame centre Marcel Dionne.
“I never had a step, so I never lost it,” he joked Tuesday. “Maybe that was why I was able to play 18 seasons.
“I just played the game and tried to improve. Maybe it didn’t look fast, but I always tried to do my best.”
Leetch was one of the top defencemen of his era with 1,028 points in 1,205 games. He won a Calder Trophy in 1988 and became the first U.S.-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs after leading the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994, ending a 54-year Cup drought for the Blueshirts.
“The frustration level was part of being a (Rangers) fan,” the former Boston College star said. “So to have been part of the team that accomplished that – a lot of people sat back and enjoyed it.”
Leetch was part of an exceptional generation of American players, with Mike Modano, Mike Richter, Keith Tkachuk and others, who played together at World Cups and Olympics for many years.
Leetch said they had all come up in the afterglow of the Americans’ Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics.
“I didn’t know any NHL players and it was hard to relate to the players on TV, but it looked like there were some college kids who had a good time and I hoped to do that one day,” he said.
The Devils have won three Stanley Cups under Lamoriello, who has been involved in the game for more than 40 years at both the college and pro levels.
Lamoriello said he was bowled over when he got the call from Hall of Fame chairman Bill Hay.
“It was a complete surprise,” he said, adding that his induction with Leetch show “where American hockey has come.”