By Sal Barry
The Hockey Hall of Fame inducted perhaps its most diverse group of honorees on Nov. 12. Consider Martin St. Louis, who at 5 feet 8 inches was passed over in the NHL Draft because he was thought to be too small, and yet ended up being a leading scorer even at the twilight of his career. Then there is hulking, 6-foot-3-inch Aleksander Yakushev, who never played in the NHL but dominated during international play for the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Jayna Hefford was a mainstay for Canada’s international women’s team for 17 seasons, winning 12 gold medals, as well as becoming the all-time leading scorer in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Headlining the players’ category was Martin Brodeur, who is the all-time leader for NHL goalies in wins, shutouts and games played.
Inducted in the builders’ category was Willie O’Ree, who broke hockey’s color barrier 60 years ago as a player with the Boston Bruins, and then helped others follow in his footsteps for the past 20 years. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was also inducted as a builder for the growth the league has enjoyed over the past quarter century.
“He Will Take a Hit to Make a Play”
The first to the podium that night was NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He is the longest-serving active commissioner of any pro sports league, and the only active pro sports commissioner to be inducted into a Hall of Fame.
“To imagine myself as a permanent part of this magical place is overwhelming,” Bettman said, “and I am thrilled to be enshrined in this Hall with this group of exceptional honorees.”
Bettman was the only 2018 inductee who never played hockey, but still took a humorous look at what kind of player he would have been: “The hockey scouting report on me would be something like this: lousy skater, not much of a shooter, you’re not going to outwork him, he’ll be strong in the corners and in front of the net, and he will take a hit to make a play.”
When Bettman took over as NHL Commissioner in February 1993, the league was a mess. The players had gone on strike for 10 days the previous season, and another work stoppage was imminent. The NHL had no national exposure on network TV in the United States; games were either broadcast regionally or on cable, severely limiting who could watch hockey. Under Bettman’s stewardship, the league prospered over the next 25 years, with revenues growing from $400 million to $4.5 billion annually. NHL games are broadcast nationally in the U.S. on NBC, and the league expanded from 26 to 31 teams, with a 32nd team in Seattle set to join the league in 2021.
Bettman also addressed the three work stoppages during his tenure, including the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season.
“They were not a first choice, but a last resort,” he said. “But even in retrospect, regrettably, there was no other way to secure the stability, competitiveness and strength that our league enjoys today.”
Rookie Card: No official cards or collectibles bearing Gary Bettman’s likeness have been released during the commissioner’s 25-year run. However, autographed photos and business cards can be found on eBay.
Small in Stature, Big in Heart
Martin St. Louis is a case study as to why one should never give up. Although he was usually the best player on his team or in his league, he was almost always passed up for the next level. No major junior hockey teams drafted him, and after excelling in four years of college hockey, no NHL teams drafted him, either. Scouts could not look past the fact that St. Louis was 5-foot-8-inches.
But that didn’t stop the right winger from going on to a Hall of Fame career, even if he did get a late start. After a year spent in the minor leagues, St. Louis finally attracted the attention of the Calgary Flames, and made his NHL debut at 23. After two seasons with Calgary, the Flames bought out his contract, and St. Louis signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning, where his career would blossom.
St. Louis went on to be a perennial top 10 scorer in the NHL for 10 years, and won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer in 2004 and again in 2013. When he accomplished the feat the second time, he did so at age 37, making him the oldest player to lead the NHL in scoring. St. Louis also won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, the Lady Byng Trophy three times as the league’s most gentlemanly player and a Stanley Cup Championship. He was also named a First Team All-Star once and a Second Team All-Star four times. In 16 NHL seasons, St. Louis scored 1,033 points in 1,134 games.
“I want to thank all of the hockey fans out there for all of the support that you’ve given me over the years,” St. Louis said. “All the cheering, I felt it, and sometimes it gave me the extra 10, 20 percent you need that night. Thank you so much.”
Rookie Cards: St. Louis has rookie cards in the following five sets from the 1998-99 season: Upper Deck, Upper Deck Gold Reserve, Pacific Crown Royale, Pacific Dynagon Ice and Pacific Omega. He also has two “pre-rookie” cards found in the 1997-98 Cleveland Lumberjacks minor league team set, as well as a Lumberjacks team postcard issued that same season.
Willie O’Ree was the first black man to play in the NHL; a remarkable feat, but not the reason why he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Rather, it was O’Ree’s work with the NHL’s Diversity Task Force over the past 20 years that inspired his call to the Hall.
“Believe it or not, on January 18, 1958, when I stepped on the ice with the Bruins, it did not dawn on me that I was breaking the color barrier,” O’Ree said. “That’s how focused I was on making my dream come true. I didn’t realize that I made history until I read it in the paper the next day.”
O’Ree played two games for the Bruins in 1958, and another 45 during the 1960-61 season. He continued to play pro hockey until 1979. What made this even more amazing is that O’Ree was blind in his right eye from an injury he sustained in junior hockey; a secret he kept from everyone except his sister.
In 1998, the NHL hired O’Ree as the Director of Youth Development for the NHL’s Diversity Task Force. O’Ree has also served as a Diversity Ambassador for the NHL and has been an integral part of the league’s Hockey is For Everyone Initiative. He won both the Lester Patrick Trophy in 2003 and the Order of Canada in 2008 for his work in helping youth hockey grow in North America. Current NHL stars like P.K. Subban, Joel Ward and Wayne Simmonds have all credited O’Ree with inspiring them to play hockey.
“When you return to your communities, take a look around,” O’Ree said. “Find a boy or girl who needs the opportunity to play hockey and give it to them. You never know; they may make history.”
Rookie Cards: O’Ree had a Beehive photo that fans could mail away for in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and also had cards in the 1956-57 Quebec Aces team set and the 1960-61 Western Hockey League set. Sharp-eyed collectors will notice that O’Ree actually appears on the 1961-62 Topps Hockey card picturing the 1961 Bruins team. But it wasn’t until 1997-98 when he got what most consider his true rookie card in that year’s Pinnacle Beehive set, an oversized set of trading cards named after the old mail-away photos.
“It is a great honor and pride to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame,” said Aleksander Yakushev. “Especially for me, a player who never played in the NHL.”
While Yakushev never did play in the NHL, it was his body of work on the international stage that earned the 6-foot-3-inch winger his Hall of Fame nod, albeit 25 years after he retired. He played professionally, mainly in Russia, from 1963 to 1983. He represented the USSR 144 times in international play, winning seven gold medals in the World Championships and two gold medals in the Olympics.
What really put Yakushev on North American hockey fans’ radar was his outstanding play in the 1972 Summit Series, which pitted the best Soviet Union players against the best Canadian-born NHLers. In the eight-game tournament, Yakushev led his team with seven goals and 11 points.
“Everyone would like to play like him: clean, beautiful, precise, strong and with this one-of-a-kind grace,” said former Flyers captain Bobby Clarke, who battled against Yakushev in the series.
“In 1972, it was a hockey war,” Yakushev said. “I can’t tell you how happy we were when we won that first game.”
While Canada won the overall eight-game series with a 4-3-1 record, the Soviet players were still excited that they got to play against NHLers.
“Any player from that 1972 team, if given the opportunity, would have dreamed to play in the NHL,” he said. “But at the time, it just wasn’t possible for us to go there legally. And not one of us would have thought about defecting. We had, at least, multiple opportunities to play against the greatest stars of the best hockey league in the world.”
Rookie Cards: Yakushev played his entire career outside of North America, so his early collectibles are not the easiest to find. He appears in various Russian National Team postcard sets, as well as Finnish and Swedish hockey card sets focusing on international players, from the early to mid-1970s. He does have a mainstream hockey card – which perhaps could be considered his rookie card – in the ’72 Canada set, issued by Future Trends in 1992 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Summit Series.
“As a six-year old girl growing up in Kingston, Ontario, I never dreamed of being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame,” said Jayna Hefford, who is the sixth female player to be inducted into the Hall. “But I dreamed of playing in the NHL, and I dreamed about winning the Stanley Cup.”
Though she never played in the NHL, Hefford was nothing short of remarkable during her 17-year career. In 267 games for Team Canada at various tournaments, she scored 157 goals and 291 points; both marks are second overall all-time. She won four gold medals and one silver medal at the Winter Olympics, seven gold medals and five silver medals at the World Championships and one gold medal at the 4 Nations Cup.
Hefford was also a prolific goal scorer in league play. She is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League all-time leader in goals and points, and in 2016, the CWHL named its award for the league’s most outstanding player the Jayna Hefford Trophy. Currently, she serves as the CWHL’s interim commissioner.
“Dreams without borders are powerful, and fewer barriers represent freedom,” she said. “Hockey has given me so much. I wouldn’t be up here tonight if I didn’t have the opportunity to play the game, even at a time it was considered a boy’s sport. I hope you will join me for advocating for the power of opportunity for everyone, because it’s only when our voices are united that we become too loud to ignore.”
Rookie Card: Hefford’s rookie card appears in the 1997-98 Upper Deck Collector’s Choice Hockey card set, as a part of the National Heroes subset.
The Game’s Greatest Goalie
Headlining the induction ceremony was Martin Brodeur, who is the all-time NHL record holder in wins (691), shutouts (125), and games played by a goalie (1,266). Like Hefford, a Hall of Fame induction was also the furthest thing from his mind as a child.
“When you grow up, you don’t expect to be in the Hall of Fame,” Brodeur said. “You expect maybe to play in the NHL. You expect maybe to win the Stanley Cup, but this is really out of your hands. To be part of it is pretty amazing.”
And Brodeur was amazing. In a career that spanned 21 full seasons and parts of two others, Brodeur won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender four times, the Jennings Trophy as the goalie with the lowest goals allowed average five times, the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1994 and the Stanley Cup three times. He was named a First Team All-Star three times and a Second Team All-Star four times in his career, and is the only goalie to win 40 games in eight seasons. Internationally, Brodeur won two gold medals in the Olympic Games and two silver medals in the World Championships.
Brodeur was known for his stickhandling prowess and actually scored two empty net goals by shooting the pucks down the length of the ice. In 2005, the NHL added a rule – unofficially known as “The Brodeur Rule” – to restrict where goalies could play the puck.
Rookie Cards: Brodeur has rookie cards in both the American and Canadian version of the 1990-91 Score Hockey set, as part of the “First Round Draft Choice” subset. He also has a card in the 1990-91 QMJHL set, issued by Seventh Inning Sketch, which pictures him with his junior team, the St. Hyacinthe Lasers.
Sal Barry is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @puckjunk.