Commentary

Hall night gives us laughter, tears, boatload of talent

Updated: November 13, 2007, 1:51 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- The Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony should be one of the marquee nights on the NHL's calendar. Unfortunately, it continued to be given short shrift Monday night.

With perhaps the strongest class in the history of the Hall of Fame -- Mark Messier, Al MacInnis, Ron Francis and Scott Stevens along with Jim Gregory in the Builders' Category -- the ceremony was unavailable to most hockey fans across North America.

The ceremony was not carried on TSN's main network in Canada and was available only on the network's secondary digital channel. It will be broadcast on the main network Wednesday night. In the United States, the event was broadcast on the NHL Network, which has just become newly available in America and, in some areas, requires a special subscription. Versus, the NHL's cable carrier in the U.S., instead broadcasted the Hurricanes-Panthers tilt from South Florida.

[+] EnlargeHockey Hall of Fame inductees
AP Photo/Adrian Wyld, The Canadian PressRon Francis, Al MacInnis, Jim Gregory, Mark Messier and Scott Stevens round out a stellar 2007 Hockey Hall of Fame class.

We understand the schedule is a great unwieldy beast, but surely an event honoring the game's finest deserves to be seen. There are a couple of possible solutions.

Carolina GM Jim Rutherford, on hand to honor Francis who played for Carolina, said it would be nice if teams who have connections to inductees could be scheduled into games in Toronto around the Hall of Fame weekend.

The other option is to simply black out the night and allow people like Wayne Gretzky, Messier's longtime friend and teammate in Edmonton, to attend. Gretzky could not be on hand Monday because he was coaching his Phoenix Coyotes in San Jose on Monday.

Oh, the speeches

The induction ceremony is always a night of high drama as the inductees try to put their long journeys through the game into perspective. And there was much anticipation for Messier's speech, given his emotional nature.

For the record (and for those of you who were in the "When Will Mess Weep?" pool), his first emotional pause came 2:51 into a speech that would last a total of 17:50.

Messier joked that he was glad to spend time with Gregory on the weekend. "I finally met somebody who was crying more times than me this weekend," Messier said.

Messier recalled how he and his family were coming into downtown Toronto from the airport and their car was stopped at a traffic light when an older gentleman spied him while crossing the street.

Messier had the window down, so the man leaned in close and said, "Messier, eh? You're here for the old-timers' game," Messier recalled.

Fans get their say

On Sunday, a standing-room only crowd greeted and asked questions of the inductees in what is always one of the highlights of Hall of Fame weekend -- the Fan Forum.

• Gregory was asked if he thought his tenure as Toronto GM in the late 1970s would have been different if he'd had the likes of Stevens, Messier, MacInnis and Francis on his squad.

"I wouldn't have been fired if I had these four guys," Gregory said.

The affable Gregory was axed by cantankerous Leafs owner Harold Ballard in 1979 after Gregory had assembled a talented team with the likes of Borje Salming, Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler and others, but couldn't win a Stanley Cup.

• Asked about his legendary slap shot, MacInnis described going to the rink to help his father, who managed the rink in his hometown of Port Hood, Nova Scotia, and picking up pucks that had been shot over the glass or boards. In the summer, he would have a collection of 75 or 80 pucks, which he shot over and over at the side of his family's barn.

"There was no secret to it," MacInnis said. "There was no composite stick."

• Messier was asked about his famous guarantee of victory prior to the sixth game of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey.

"My first thought was, 'Oh no, what did I do,'" Messier recalled. "I guess I forgot about the 14 million people living around the New York area."

Messier added that the bold statement, one he followed up by scoring three times to ensure the Rangers' win, was about instilling confidence in his teammates.

Among Messier's former teammates who were on hand Monday night were Mike Richter, Adam Graves, Kevin Lowe and former Rangers GM Neil Smith.

"I think it's an absolute privilege to be here," Graves told ESPN.com. "I had the privilege of playing with Mark and the privilege of calling him a friend."

The Hall ties that bind

The 1994 series between the Rangers and the Devils is one of a number of threads that tie all of these players together in various ways.

Stevens, of course, was across the hall in the Devils' dressing room when Messier made his guarantee of victory. Stevens said that loss, as painful as it was, was crucial in the Devils' evolution as a team. They went on to win the Stanley Cup the following spring and twice more during Stevens' career.

Other connections include the fact that Stevens and MacInnis were teammates in Kitchener, where both played junior hockey and won a Memorial Cup together. Stevens played only one season before moving on to the NHL with Washington, but the two became good friends and remain so today.

Then, there was Stevens' thunderous hit on Francis during a playoffs series between the Devils and Carolina Hurricanes in 2001. The sight of Francis struggling to regain his feet after the hit remains a powerful illustration of Stevens' hitting prowess.

A fan decked out in a Hurricanes jersey first thanked Francis for his contributions in Carolina and then asked Francis if the forum would be the perfect place for a public apology from Stevens.

"On the hit thing, I'm not looking for one and I don't think he's going to offer one," Francis joked.

Later, Francis said that given the number of times he played against Stevens, he considered himself fortunate that it didn't happen more often.

"I knew where he was and I thought I had time to make the move and it didn't work out the way I was hoping it would, obviously," Francis said.

Speaking of hits, Stevens said the hardest hit he ever took came from journeyman forward Bryan Smolinski, not known as the game's most physical player. Stevens said he woke up in the trainers' room and looked up at teammate Bobby Carpenter.

"I said, 'Why are you wearing a suit?'" Stevens said. He had forgotten that Carpenter was injured and wasn't even playing.

Hey, dad! Look at me!

When Francis broke into the NHL with Hartford in 1981, his first roommate was former Toronto captain Dave Keon, a notoriously prickly individual.

"I think it took about 30 days for him to have a conversation with me in the room," Francis joked.

One person who was absolutely thrilled was Francis' father.

"I think he was pretty excited to get a call from his son that he's actually playing in the NHL, but then when he found out his son was rooming with Dave Keon, well, it was probably a bigger impression on him at the time than me," Francis said, "one that I've come to appreciate more and more over the years."

The other legend Francis encountered in his early days was Gordie Howe, who would still come out and skate with the Whalers even though he was retired from the NHL.

One day Francis was skating in on goal during a drill and suddenly felt his arm being jerked up into the air. He turned to find Howe had turned the blade of his stick over and jammed it into the laces of his glove.

"See, kid, that's why you take the laces out of your glove," Howe said.

Where's the international flavor?

Szymon Szemberg, the longtime news media director for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) was on hand for the Hall ceremonies and had some interesting thoughts on the selection process and the Hall committee's failure to acknowledge some of the game's great European players.

While not speaking officially for the IIHF, Szemberg said the selection committee needs to do more homework on finding players who have made significant contributions in Europe and who deserve a place in the Hall of Fame.

He noted that the Hall of Fame is really the NHL's Hall of Fame when it comes to honoring players and builders.

"There's nothing wrong with that, having an NHL Hall of Fame. But then say it. Don't try and pretend you're something that you're not," Szemberg said. "I do feel that the committee itself, I think, lacks the international perspective. To be able to fully recognize what people have done outside the NHL.

"It boils down to doing your homework," he said of identifying great non-NHL players.

He pointed to this year's snubbing of Igor Larionov, one of the greatest Russian players. If Larionov wasn't selected this year because his NHL career may not measure up (he did win three Stanley Cups in Detroit), Szemberg said Larionov's Red Army teams played against NHL clubs and won about 70 percent of those contests.

"He was the European Gretzky," Szemberg said.

The Hall of Fame selection committee sometimes receives criticism because it operates in relative secrecy. But St. Louis Blues president John Davidson, a member of the committee, believes that's what makes it work.

Few secrets escape from within the selection committee's code of silence.

"You don't hear anything," Davidson said. "And you've got to have that. "There's a process for everything. It's not a charity case and it's not a popularity contest. I can honestly say the integrity level is very high. If it wasn't, I would walk away."

Davidson describes the debate as "open, honest, respectful."

"Guys do a lot of homework before they get there," he said, and that homework involves both positive and negative attributes of potential inductees.

Book report

Szemberg was also on hand to help launch a new book marking 100 years of international hockey called "World of Hockey, Celebrating the Centennial of the International Ice Hockey Federation."

The book is broken into 12 distinct periods or events in the evolution of the international game, including chapters on the 1972 Summit Series, the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid and the Russian dynasty at the Olympics and World Championships in the 1950s and 1960s.

The book was edited by Szemberg and Canadian hockey writer Andrew Podnieks.

Szemberg gathered hockey writers from around the world to tell the different stories and he hopes the book does what few books about international hockey have been able to so, which is balance the European perspective with the North American perspective. The book is available online and through the IIHF's Web site.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.