It's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of OK

The Hockey Hall of Fame should be the pantheon of hockey gods. But it seems these days the inductees are less than godlike.

Updated: June 7, 2005, 6:11 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Imagine this. Jim Gregory, chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee announces Wednesday afternoon that for the first time since the Hall began receiving players in 1945, no player will be so honored in 2005.

Next year, sure thing. Patrick Roy, Doug Gilmour, we'll have your nifty jackets sized and ready.

But this year, the Class of 2005 will remain empty.

Our apologies, Mike Vernon and Dino Ciccarelli and Glenn Anderson. Our apologies, TSN executives who will televise the ceremony in November.

Now wouldn't that be refreshing?

Such a bold statement would go a long way toward repairing the current image of the Hall of Fame as a cozy club for players who were occasionally great, more often than not pretty good, and who simply hung around the NHL long enough to be considered Hall-worthy.

Such a statement would do nothing about the players whose place in the Hall of Fame will be forever debated, players such as Bernie Federko and Denis Savard and Clark Gillies. But if eminently likable Gregory did just that Wednesday afternoon, it would send the message to the hockey world that from this point forward, the Hall of Fame is a shrine for the indisputably great, the revered, the gods of the game.

Are there such players on the docket for consideration for the Class of 2005? Not really.

Vernon won two Stanley Cups, one in 1989 with the Calgary Flames and one in 1997 with the Detroit Red Wings. The diminutive Calgary native was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP in '97, although let's be honest, any one of six or seven Wings could rightfully have laid claim to the trophy.

Was he a pretty darned good goalie? Sure. A god? Not quite.

Ciccarelli is 12th among all-time NHL scorers with 608 goals. Every other player ahead of him on that list is in the Hall of Fame. Yet Ciccarelli never won a Stanley Cup and was simply another player who put up big numbers in the offensive frenzy of the 1980s and early 1990s. Respected? Well, yes, except perhaps by Scotty Bowman, whom Ciccarelli belittled after leaving Bowman's Red Wings in the mid-1990s, and any of the dozens of players Ciccarelli elbowed, slashed or speared during his career.

Anderson is an interesting option.

The former member of the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty was often prickly with the media and sometimes appeared bored during the regular season. But when the playoffs rolled around, he was among the most prolific postseason performers of all time, helping the Oilers to five Stanley Cups and adding another ring with the New York Rangers.

But if you give Anderson a jacket, do you automatically honor a player like Claude Lemieux who won four Stanley Cups with three different teams but was generally an ordinary player during the regular season?

Is a single element of greatness enough to earn a ride into the Hall of Fame? Or should the Hall reflect greatness painted on a broader canvas, the kind of greatness that is rarely seen but a pure joy to behold?

Therein lies the issue for the 18 members of the selection committee – a committee comprising some of the most thoughtful, highly regarded minds in the game, including Bowman, Al Arbour and Pat Quinn, and some of the top hockey journalists in the business.

If players were judged solely by the terms set out in the Hall of Fame's bylaws – playing ability, sportsmanship, character and their contribution to the team or teams and to the game of hockey in general – then it would be relatively easy to justify voiding the Class of 2005.

But these selections, requiring the support of 75 percent of the committee, are not made in a vacuum. There will always be a tendency to judge players not only by their own merits but by the merits of others who have gone before them.

If Federko and Gillies and Savard and Rod Langway, then why not Ciccarelli? Or Anderson? Or even Steve Larmer, Bobby Smith or Dale Hunter? The only answer is, OK, let 'em in. Call Jackets-R-Us.

These debates rarely happen when it comes to selections to baseball and football's respective halls. The stories surrounding Major League Baseball's annual selection process invariably focus on those left behind, so high is the bar set at Cooperstown.

Hockey has, at least in recent years, been more inclusionary than exclusionary.

In fact, in all but two years since the selection process became an annual event in 1958, the Hall has welcomed at least two players. Wayne Gretzky was the only player inducted in 1999 when he was fast-tracked without having to wait the required three years after retirement and Boston Bruins great Bill "Cowboy" Cowley, who played 13 years between 1934 and 1947, was the only player inducted in 1968.

Perhaps this "welcome all" philosophy reflects the nature of the game in recent years, the desire to be embraced, to be wanted. Perhaps it is the desire for the game to want to celebrate itself in the face of almost constant criticism and bad news.

Sadly, if the Hall of Fame were to apply this thinking on a global nature to include European greats such as Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov or Ivan Hlinka, it's unlikely the Hall would face the questioning and skepticism it seems to on an almost annual basis.

In fact, if Gregory were to step forward Wednesday and announce that there would be no player inducted in a year for the first time since the first players were inducted in 1945, then the Hall might enjoy the kind of widespread praise it deserves.

During last year's celebrations in Toronto, inductees Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy and Cliff Fletcher, universally endorsed as worthy honorees, met with fans on a Sunday afternoon before the ceremony. Hundreds of fans crowded the area, and at one point, a fan wearing a Bourque jersey stood up and thanked Bourque for being a role model for so many years. Then, choking back tears, the man explained that he'd driven from Boston with his 9-year-old son to watch Bourque get inducted into the Hall as a way of passing on his love of the game to his son.

Those are the kinds of players that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Those are the kinds of players for whom the Hall was built.

Now, let's keep it that way.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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