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Gionta, Thomas, Wendell and Bettman headline latest U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame class

The NHL commissioner goes into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame alongside a pair of Stanley Cup winners, a women's hockey great and a longtime youth coach who co-founded the oldest minority hockey club in North America.

Less than one year after his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is set to be enshrined once again. On Wednesday, Bettman was announced as one of five inductees into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2019 alongside Stanley Cup champions Brian Gionta and Tim Thomas, women’s hockey great Krissy Wendell and Neal Henderson, a dedicated youth coach for more than four decades.

Bettman’s induction comes as a result of the NHL’s impact, and his influence, on increasing the visibility and the involvement in hockey south of the border, which he alluded to following Wednesday’s announcement.

“This recognition is really more about the growth of the game…than it is about any individual, including me,” Bettman said. “When you have moments like this, it tends to cause you to look back, feel a little older, but having looked back on all the wonderful things that the game of hockey has done in communities and has done in my life, as well, and I’m grateful to be associated with this game and to be a part of watching it grow to unprecedented heights.”

Gionta, who retired from the NHL following the 2017-18 campaign, has long been a lock for induction and it's no surprise he earned induction so quickly following his playing days. A Stanley Cup champion in 2003 as a member of the New Jersey Devils, who drafted him 82nd overall in 1998, Gionta was a standout with Boston College, three times voted into the Hobey Baker Top 10. In 2001, he captained the Eagles to a national championship, after which he made the transition to the professional ranks.

Small in stature, Gionta was big in heart and his on-ice savvy quickly made him a top-six mainstay in New Jersey, where he earned Hart Trophy consideration in 2005-06 with a career-best 48-goal, 89-point campaign. His two-way game was his bread and butter, however, and Gionta remained an impactful talent throughout his NHL career, during which he spent seven seasons with the Devils, five with the Montreal Canadiens, three with the Buffalo Sabres and had one last hurrah with the Boston Bruins. He captained the Canadiens for four campaigns and the Sabres for his entire tenure.

Beyond his NHL career, Gionta also pulled on a Team USA jersey at two World Junior Championships, three World Championships and two Olympics, including the 2018 Pyeongchang tournament, where he captained the American squad. “I don’t want to say it was even more special than the 2006 Olympics,” Gionta said. “But as you get older, you really get to soak in the whole experience. And for my kids to be a part of that was really special.”

Inducted alongside Gionta is NHL compatriot Thomas, who took a far more circuitous route to the league. From the University of Vermont, on through the defunct International League, then to Finland, Sweden and the AHL, Thomas had one of the most interesting journeys to NHL stardom in league history. And make no mistake, he was undoubtedly a star, albeit for a brief period.

Though it took Thomas until 2005-06, nearly a decade after the end of his college career, to crack the Bruins’ roster as a regular, he quickly established himself a legitimate No. 1 netminder. Throughout the 2007-08 season, during which Thomas was 33, he was among the best goaltenders in the league and finished ninth in Vezina Trophy voting, and proceeded to follow that up with two Vezina victories in the next three campaigns. The better of those two seasons was 2010-11, which culminated with one of the best post-season goaltending performances in league history and Thomas, then 37, becoming the oldest player in league history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy after he backstopped Boston to the Stanley Cup.

While he doesn’t have the same games played total as Gionta, Thomas did represent Team USA at more men’s competitions. All told, he appeared at eight World Championships – his first in 1994-95 and his last, which were the final games of his career, in 2014 – and appeared in his first and only Olympics in 2010. For his efforts, he has an Olympic silver and World Championship bronze to his name.

“My whole career, my whole life in hockey, stands out,” Thomas said, later adding that it wasn’t until this past post-season that he got back into watching the NHL.

The international accomplishments of both Gionta and Thomas pale in comparison to those of Wendell, however, who enters with the most decorated Team USA resume of the three players. First representing USA at the 1998-99 World Championship, Wendell, an oft-cited idol of stars of the current generation, went on to play at six total World Championships and two Olympics, including the 2006 Turin games, where she captained the team to bronze. She also has Olympic silver, World Championship gold and five World Championship silvers.

On the international stage, Wendell was one of the most prolific players Team USA has ever seen. In her 29 games at the World Championship, she scored 21 goals and 59 points, and she notched another four goals and 10 points in Olympic competition. That should come as no surprise, however, as Wendell is among the most lethal NCAA scorers in women’s hockey history. She boasts the third-highest single-season point total of all-time, an eye-popping 104 points in 40 games in 2004-05, and has the 15th-highest point total in collegiate history with 237 in 101 career games at University of Minnesota. She won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the NCAA top women’s player in 2005.

Fittingly, Wendell’s induction comes one year after Natalie Darwitz was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The two formed arguably one of the greatest one-two punches in NCAA history, and the Golden Gophers duo combined for 85 goals and 218 points in 40 games during the 2004-05 campaign, the same season they guided the Golden Gophers to a national championship.

“(Darwitz) is one of my best friends,” Wendell said. “Honored to go in with her, grew up playing with her and was grateful to have her pretty much every step along the way, from high school to college and now here in the Hall of Fame.”

Finally, Henderson earns his way into the Hall of Fame for his dedication to the game, spending the last 41 years his life running the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, which is the “oldest minority hockey club in North America.” Henderson’s program, which he co-founded in D.C., has taught countless youth the game, and his contributions saw him recognized as a finalist for the 2018 Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.

The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame’s formal induction ceremony will be held Dec. 12 in Washington, D.C.

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