“I was just telling Vladislav Tretiak … ” Wayne Gretzky said on the red carpet Monday.
Gretzky grew up in Brantford, Ontario, and used to visit the Hall at Exhibition Place before it moved to its current home in 1993. He told Tretiak he used to stare at his goalie mask and Soviet jersey for hours. Of course, Gretzky grew up to become the Great One, and now people come to the Hall to stare at his No. 99.
“I’m really a big believer that one of the greatest things about our game is the history and
nostalgia,” Gretzky said. “Buildings like this, a night like this, it just goes so far to inspire so many other young kids that come along and say, ‘You know what? I’d really like to be there one day.’ ”
Gretzky presented NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman with his plaque Monday, but he saw the same trait in each inductee: Commissioner Bettman, Martin Brodeur, Jayna Hefford, Willie O’Ree, Martin St. Louis and Alexander Yakushev.
“Nobody’s given the right to be in the Hall of Fame,” Gretzky said. “You earn your way, and the thing that they all have in common is that they’ve worked hard to make our game better, to make our game to what it is today.”
Commissioner Bettman has led the NHL for a quarter of its 100-plus year history. Since he took over Feb. 1, 1993, it has grown from 24 teams to 31, with an application pending for a 32nd. Revenues have grown from $400 million to more than $4.5 billion per season. A new economic system has led to stability and parity. New rules have led to skill, speed, and safety. The NHL has taken the game outdoors, overseas and online.
“Mr. Bettman has grown our game to heights that we never thought possible,” Gretzky said.
Brodeur has far more wins (691) and shutouts (125) than any other goalie. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year (1991) and the Vezina Trophy as the League’s best goaltender four times (2003, 2004, 2007, 2008). He won the Stanley Cup three times with the New Jersey Devils (1995, 2000, 2003) and Olympic gold twice with Canada (2002, 2010).
Hefford, the sixth woman inducted into the Hall, won Olympic gold four times with Canada (2002, 2006, 2010, 2014) amid an outstanding playing career. She is now commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
O’Ree played two games for the Boston Bruins in 1957-58 and 43 for them in 1960-61. His NHL career totals: 45 games, four goals, 10 assists, 14 points. But he broke the color barrier, and he has spent the past 20 years as an NHL ambassador promoting inclusion.
“Sometimes statistics aren’t everything,” Gretzky said. “Sometimes it’s about what you bring to the table to make our game better. And without question, Willie O’Ree fits that description. He’s done nothing but be a positive for our sport.
“[He] probably went through harder times than a lot of other NHL players, and for him to have his chin up and be smiling and still talking about how great the game is, that’s the kind of people we need.”
St. Louis went from an undrafted 5-foot-8 forward to a winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player (2004) and a two-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy as the League’s scoring champion (2004, 2013). He won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning (2004) and Olympic gold with Canada (2014).
Then there was Yakushev. He never played in the NHL, but he was one of the best players in the world, hidden behind the Iron Curtain. He starred for the Soviet Union against Canada in the 1972 Summit Series and won Olympic gold twice (1972, 1976).
Gretzky said he and Mark Messier had lunch with Yakushev in Moscow years ago. They told him he was their favorite Soviet player in the 1972 Summit Series. When they played together for the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, if someone made a great play in practice, they would say it was “Yakushevian.”
“We were telling him the story, and he started crying,” Gretzky said. “He didn’t believe us. But we admired him so much.”
The hockey world is a small one. It doesn’t matter where you were born, what color you are, what gender you are, how big you are, what religion you practice, whom you love. If you can play — or if you can’t skate but can make an impact in your own way — you too can be Yakushevian.
“Not every goal gets reached,” Gretzky said. “Obviously there’s disappointments for a lot of people. But ultimately if you have a passion and a love for what you’re doing, you’re going to put in the extra work and you can be successful.
“I was a kid who had a dream like everyone else. I never thought I’d ever get to be friends with Gordie Howe and play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup. But you dream about it, and that’s the greatest thing about our sport.”
by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist