By Allan Muir
The selection committee for the Hockey Hall of Fame has earned a healthy dose of scorn for its history of voting that, at times, smacks of cronyism, vindictiveness and xenophobia. But in naming the members of the Class of 2013 today, it came as close to getting it right as it has in years.
The 18-man induction committee voted in Scott Niedermayer, Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan and Geraldine Heaney in the Player Category and Fred Shero in the Builder Category. All are eminently worthy of the honor, even though it took too long for three of them to be recognized.
The Hall doesn’t release vote totals, but it’s hard to imagine that Niedermayer wasn’t on all 18 ballots in his first year of eligibility.
Whatever standards someone might apply to earn admission to the Hall, he crushed them all.
Over the course of his 17-season career, Niedermayer became hockey’s greatest champion. He is the only player to win the Stanley Cup, Memorial Cup, the World Cup of Hockey, the World Junior Championship and gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships. He wasn’t just a great individual player. He made everyone around him better. His silky smooth skating was the envy of every player in the league, and he was dynamite in all three zones. But he was also a ferocious competitor and a leader who grasped the subtleties of guiding his teammates into battle as well as anyone who ever played the game. Add in a graceful character that earned him respect on and off the ice and he was guaranteed a spot.
Chelios was universally respected as well, but for entirely different reasons. He was as mean and cheap an opponent as anyone has run into during the last three decades, but those same qualities made him a beloved teammate. Over the course of 26 seasons and 1,651 games — a total no American player or defenseman ever topped — Chelios would do anything to help his team win a game. That he was an 11-time All-Star and won the Norris Trophy three times speaks to his exemplary two-way play, and his willingness to play tough and dirty made him a throwback to another era. He embodied Old Time Hockey.
Shanahan was bypassed last summer in his first year of eligibility, but that was a reflection of political axe grinding more than a knock on his qualifications. Stats don’t always tell the whole story, but they rarely paint a picture as clear as this one. Shanny is the only player in NHL history to score at least 600 goals and serve at least 2,000 penalty minutes. A three-time Stanley Cup winner, he epitomized the term “power forward.” He could beat you with his shoulder, his fists or his wrister. He had a hair-trigger temper that was a furious thing to behold, and it bought him the time and space he needed to become an elite sniper. Longevity rarely enters in the equation, but the fact that he was able to play the way he did for as long as he did is a marvel.
Shero’s long wait for induction has been a hot topic for years, but the innovative coach of the 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup-winning Flyers finally was given his due. Over his 10-year career, he posted a .612 points percentage, fourth best all-time behind Scotty Bowman, Mike Babcock and Toe Blake. He was one of the first to include the study of game film in his preparation and to hire a full-time assistant coach. He also began the practice of game-day skates to address any concerns ahead of that night’s contest (and maybe partly to keep his team of carousers in line).
Heaney is one of the legends of the women’s game, a rugged two-way defender who routinely quelled attacks long before they became scoring chances, then spearheaded Canada’s transition game with her superior playmaking and beautiful skating. She’s best remembered for scoring the goal that clinched the gold medal in the first-ever Women’s World Championship in 1990. Heaney went on to help Canada win seven World Championships, along with silver at the 1998 Olympics and gold in 2002.
Like Shero and Shanahan, it shouldn’t have taken so long for Heaney to earn the ring and jacket. But give the committee credit for correcting past wrongs. And let’s hope it’s a sign of smarter, less vindictive voting to come.