Mats Sundin will have an enormous advantage when his name comes up as a candidate for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame next summer. He had his best years with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The hockey shrine will accept its four newest honored players Monday night at a gala held just one block from where the Maple Leafs play their home games. The Hall of Fame is as close as the Maple Leafs have been to the Stanley Cup since 1967, but thanks to a Maple Leaf bias when it comes to Hall of Fame selections, the franchise has more than its share of representation there.
With the inductions of Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Ed Belfour, the Maple Leafs have a total of 53 players who have pulled on their uniform for at least parts of their careers who have gone on to the Hall of Fame. When you count players who spent all or the bulk of their careers with the Maple Leafs, the total is 26. (Gilmour is included in that total since he played more games with the Maple Leafs than any other team in his NHL career.)
That’s pretty rarified status for a franchise that you could argue has never had a true superstar in its lineup. Gilmour is probably the closest to come to that status – and by superstar we mean one of the top five players in the league for a sustained period of time. The Maple Leafs have never had a player of the ilk of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur or Dominik Hasek. It has always been a triumph of the collective for the Maple Leafs and most years, that collective hasn’t been very good.
For example, can you believe the Maple Leafs have never had a Norris Trophy winner, ever? And it doesn’t end there. The Leafs have not had a scoring champion in more than 70 years. They have won only two Hart Trophies as league MVP and the last one was in 1955 when Ted Kennedy was awarded the Hart essentially as a retirement gift. They have not had a rookie of the year since expansion and have just six Vezinas, none since 1965. (In 1982, the award went from being awarded to the goalie(s) with the best goals-against average to the one deemed to be the best by the league’s GMs.) They have just one Conn Smythe winner, in large part because the Leafs have been to the Cup final only once since the award named after the team’s former owner was introduced in 1965.
So let’s fast forward to next year. When you look at the candidates for the 2012 class, everyone agrees Joe Sakic and Brendan Shanahan are slam-dunks. So that accounts for two of the four spots open for male inductees. That leaves Sundin to go against the likes of Jeremy Roenick, Gary Roberts and Curtis Joseph among those in their first year of eligibility. Discuss amongst yourself whether Sundin is a legitimate Hall of Famer or not, but remember he never won a major award, has no Stanley Cups, was a second-team all-star just twice in his career and wasn’t among the top 10 players in the league the majority of seasons during his career. He was a very good point-per-game player and there are a few of those in the Hall of Fame already.
But I’d be willing to bet that if Sundin put up precisely the same numbers and played to the same standard in say, Los Angeles or Nashville or San Jose, he wouldn’t even be in the conversation for the Hall of Fame. But because he was the best player and captain in the biggest market in the league for the better part of a decade, there’s a good chance he’ll get in on his first try.
And meanwhile, a guy such as Pavel Bure continues to wait for the call. Bure had five 50-goal seasons, led the league in goals three times and was one of the most dynamic and exciting performers of his era. If he had done that wearing a Maple Leaf uniform, he would have been walking the red carpet and getting fitted for a Hall of Fame jacket five years ago when he was first eligible. In fact, I’m willing to wager that if you transpose the rosters of the Montreal Canadiens and Maple Leafs in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Guy Carbonneau and his three Selke Trophies would have a plaque in the hall.
The Canadiens, who have won 24 Stanley Cups (10 since the Leafs last won in 1967), have won a boatload more individual awards and had far more star power than the Leafs. Yet the Habs have the same number of players (53) in the Hall of Fame who wore their colors as the Leafs do. Among players who played the bulk of their careers in Montreal, 35 are in the Hall of Fame, just nine more than the moribund Leafs. But when you look at the Canadiens list of Hall of Famers, it’s almost impossible to find any clunkers in the group.
Look at the Leafs, though, and there are more questionable and borderline selections than you can shake a hockey stick at. We all know who they are and there’s no point in dredging them up again, but the Leafs Hall of Fame roster doesn’t exactly form a glittering group. In fact, take the best player the Maple Leafs have ever had – be it Syl Apps or Kennedy or Frank Mahovlich – and he would have a hard time infiltrating the list of top 20 players on the Canadiens.
But that hasn’t stopped the Hall of Fame selection committee from continuing to open the door for ex-Leafs. I mean, come on, Fred Shero is not in the Hall of Fame as a builder and J.P. Bickell, a businessman who helped build Maple Leaf Gardens, is there? And in what other sport could a guy go to prison for tax evasion and effectively run the team into the ground and gain induction into the Hall of Fame the way Harold Ballard did?
So don’t be surprised if Sundin makes it into the exclusive club on his first try next year. After all, the Hall of Fame loves its Leafs.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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