Lacing Up: Forward Thinkers...The 2012 HHOF Inductees
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal: Well, Matt, in recent weeks we’ve spoken about individual players, specifically Penguins players, with regard to their future with or without the team. In honor of Hockey’s Hall of Fame induction taking place this week, we’ll instead look back on some exceptional, Hall-of-Fame worthy players whose dreams of entering that elite club come true Monday night. Each year, the “hockey gods” have a funny way of throwing us a theme that seems to unite Hall of Fame classes around some semblance of a common thread. This year, Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic, Pavel Bure, and Adam Oates enter hockey’s most prestigious inner circle. While it’s not without precedent, this year’s class of players all made their respective livings as forwards in a time when the NHL’s status as a big-4 sport was completely in flux for a number of reasons. Before we begin to reflect on each of these players individually, Matt, what do you think this group tends to have in common with one another? That is, while each player brought something unique to his respective team and by degrees, the league, do these four commonly contribute something to hockey history from their own generation?
Matt Paul: Josh, before getting into the HHOF inductees, might I add that this marks the first time we’ve done two “Lacing Up” columns in a week? For you regular readers, get used to it, as we plan to continue with two-a-weeks from this point forward. Monday will remain our primary day, with a second column going live Thursday morning. Keep an eye out for pieces on Kennedy, Dupuis, and Tangradi in coming weeks! And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
To me, these four players represent the 1990s to a “T.” I can recall getting ramped up for All Star Games in my pre- and early-teen years, waiting to see these geniouses showcase their unreal talents in the Superskills competition. But, maybe I’m missing something, Josh, as I don’t necessarily see a theme here. I first thought of longevity, as Oates, Sundin and Sakic stuck around for a good while, remaining relevant when many others are retired. But Bure doesn’t fit that grouping, as he suffered knee injuries that shortened his career. I then thought of leadership and loyalty. While Sakic and Sundin represent this category wonderfully, Oates and Bure aren’t exactly models, here. And, of course, we can’t link them all to the Stanley Cup, either. So, aside from me associating them with insane skill and attributing them to helping foster my passion for hockey, I’m at a loss for a theme. Josh, I’m going to need you to fill me in, here…
Josh: Matt, while I was in the single digits in the age column while these guys played through their prime, I must admit that going back beyond 1995 requires some secondhand memory (or a great copy of a video game that honors the legendary players). However, what I had in mind beyond the fact that all four of these forwards who put up bigtime points (mainly goals for Bure, and a pretty healthy balance with Sakic and Sundin, and a big number of assists for Oates) was the true marked beginning of a specialists game. As obstruction from defensemen became more of a hot button issue, in addition to the game’s popularity growing in other markets (largely in part to a USA defeat of the USSR in the 1980 Olympics), hockey was a sport that was attracting more players with different body types and skill sets. Granted, all four of these guys come from hockey hotbeds (Bure from Russia, Sakic and Oates from Canada, and Sundin from Sweden). In a way, I think what makes each of these guys different is in fact what the “theme” this year may be. Bure was the smallish forward who could fly and finish with the best of them. Sakic is quite possibly one of the smartest players to ever play the game, always finding himself in the right place at the right time. Oates didn’t have a killer shot, but will probably go down as the one of the best set-up guys in history. Sundin looked like your typical hulking, massive hockey player of the 1970’s, but had frighteningly good hands and great intangible leadership skills. To me, I’ve always pictured 1970’s and ’80’s hockey as being a game where size was the rule, with very few exceptions, and most guys were jacks-of-all-trades. To me, this class represents one of the first few runs of guys who were bona fide specialists in areas (shining through most directly in Oates and Bure) that may have made them mere minor league crowd attractions instead of Hall of Famers only 2 decades earlier. Matt, do you see where I’m coming from on this?
Matt: I sure do, and I get it now. What links these players together is that, to an extent, each used a “specialty” to become a star, rather than having the prior necessary package of size and skill. It’s interesting, then, to really think about how each took a completely different path to the Hall of Fame and how each, despite the fact that all are forwards, is known for something different. None of these guys will find their names in a conversation with Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux as one of the greatest forwards of all time, but I think it’s entirely possible we’ll look at these guys 10, 15, or 20 years from now and remember them as some of the first to be known specifically for a skill-set. Who can forget Bure speeding down the ice and threading the needle for an unreal goal? He’s among the best pure goal scorers ever, and quite possibly the best I’ve seen. And what about Oates? He only had 97 assists in one season. Assists. Not points. Assists. No biggie, right? Wow! Then there’s Sakic. What a warrior, a leader, a champion. I don’t fancy myself an Avalanche fan, but how can you root against a guy like Joe Sakic? And lastly, Sundin. Along with my mother-in-law’s all-time favorite Ron Francis, Sundin might just go down as one of the more underrated players of all time. He had the size and the physicality, but he also had the skill of a smaller puckhandler. It’s crazy to think of the legends we grew up watching, Josh. Nowadays we’re treated to Trevor Gillies and Sean Avery. Nice.
Josh: It’s easy for us to look at nowadays and pine for the legends of the past and the way we see the game as it “used to be.” It’s definitely a different game now. However, I think part of our fondness in thinking of these players also stems from how their passion for hockey on the ice has helped the game move forward both due to their contributions as players, but also due to their continued commitment within the hockey world. When some guys hang it up (especially in other sports), they disappear never to be seen again. Sakic (often confused with coach Joe Sacco) is a hockey exec in Colorado, the franchise to whom he showed ultimate loyalty, following them from Quebec to Denver and playing an entire illustrious career there. Noted Penguin-killer Adam Oates will be behind the benches in Washington, doubtless making the Capitals a team to fear yet again in the Eastern Conference. Sundin opened doors in many ways for future Swedish Hall of Famers – look at the Swedes in the league now – Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Backstrom, and the Sedin twins. Bure always seems to come up as the black sheep with this group, but if nothing else, his “History Will Be Made” run of commercials which completely encapsulates everything that playoff hockey should be. What’s encouraging to think about is that whenever hockey may return, the current players who these Hall of Famers have paved the way for will be contributing to and changing the game in ways of their own. Hockey is nothing if not adaptable to change, and I think this Hall of Fame class embodies that ideal. Matt, any memories from this most recent Hall of Fame class that really stand out for you?
Matt: Josh, to your point on pining for the past is that I’m just a nostalgic guy. I’m the guy who watches “Saved By The Bell” and “Boy Meets World” re-runs at every opportunity and thinks the 1980s and 1990s offered the best music of any decade. I also have many fond memories of being a kid and tend to look back at that timeframe with general fondness and nostalgia. These four players were some of the most impressive of my childhood and were some of the biggest names on the ice when I first became of a fan of hockey. So, for me, it’s a little less about their passion, and a lot more about their timing and how that influenced my love for the game. Now, to your question of specific memories. That’s where I draw a blank. While I have great memories of my childhood and teenage years, my memory is and never has been the most impressive. Digging through the vault to find something specific that stands out is a difficult task. What I can say, though, is that when any of these men took the ice, I wanted to watch. They weren’t all flashy the way Bure is, but they all were exciting to watch in their own, unique way. Because of that, they all caught m eye when on the ice. Josh, I know you’ve been digging up the old YouTube clips — something I might have done if I didn’t find myself under the weather in the midst of this conversation — so I’m sure you have one or two plays that stand out. Am I right?
Josh: Bure definitely stands out as the guy with the most jaw-dropping “YouTube-ability” of this year’s class. He did things in games that other players were shy about even trying at practice, like this breakaway where he played the puck to his skate, kicked in back to his stick, and scored. There is also the moment where he ended a double overtime game with a deadly breakaway goal, an awesome moment in his career and in Vancouver history.
Oates was anything but flashy in his style of play. In fact, if you YouTube search for Adam Oates Highlights, 2 out of the first 5 search results are of other players who benefited from his unbelievable passing.
Though I never thought of Sakic as being the handsiest player in the league, this goal he scored for Quebec shorthanded really shows his ability to score and lead in tough situations.
Lastly, Mats Sundin is one of the only forwards I can ever remember having the skill set to skate the puck even, even without a ton of speed, and have the power to rip a slapshot by a tender with regularity. This is a perfect example of that ability.