Class of 2009 get rings before induction

Updated: November 10, 2009, 5:10 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

TORONTO -- Steve Yzerman has one regret when looking back on his Hall of Fame career: He wishes he didn't return to ice four years ago after the NHL lockout.

"I really debated should I come back, is this the right thing or not?" the former Red Wings captain said Monday after his induction into the Hall. "Looking back on the thing, I wouldn't have done it. If I had the opportunity (to do it again), I wouldn't have come back and played."

[+] EnlargeHall of Fame
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesHall of Fame inductees (left to right) Brett Hull, Lou Lamoriello, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman show off their rings at the ceremony in Toronto on Monday.

That means he could have been part of another strong induction group instead -- the class of 2007.

In addition to having remarkable careers and their names on the Stanley Cup, this year's inductees all endured the league's latest labor dispute. Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Luc Robitaille went through it as players while Lou Lamoriello was on the other side as an executive with the New Jersey Devils.

They picked up their rings during a morning ceremony at the Hall with the induction speeches scheduled for Monday night.

Yzerman originally thought the lockout might be a blessing in disguise for him as he was recovering from a serious knee surgery.

"I was hoping actually the year off was going to help me," he said. "I was hoping that if I trained I could come back stronger and play. It really didn't make much of a difference at all.

"At least when I retired, I knew I was done."

Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, who has kept a low profile during the Phoenix Coyotes' bankruptcy and ownership dispute in recent months, traveled to Toronto to see his friends honored.

He said he's not bitter toward the NHL even though he's struggling to recoup money owed to him.

"No, not at all. What's there to be upset by?" Gretzky said, according to ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun. "It's the greatest game in the world. There's nothing better than our sport. I'm very proud of it, and life goes on.

"It is what it is right now. Right now it's just my time to sit back and enjoy my kids. And you know what? The game is bigger than any individual or any person. Right now, it's just not part of my life. It's as simple as that," Gretzky added

Hull signed with the Coyotes after the lockout ended, but only appeared in five games before retiring. The pace was suddenly too fast for a 41-year-old who hadn't played a meaningful game in 1½ years.

Without the layoff, Hull believes he would have stuck around the league longer.

"Absolutely, no question," he said. "I know that for a fact."

The hardest thing for Leetch is the lingering belief the lockout cost him a chance at another Stanley Cup. After a strong career with the New York Rangers, the smooth-skating defenseman had been dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs near the trading deadline in the 2003-04 season.

"I had one year left on my contract with Toronto," he said. "I thought we had a good team, I thought we had a chance to make a run at it again. I had won in New York after 54 years and I said, 'Wow, imagine being able to win in Toronto and New York?' So I had always had that in the back of my head."

The season following the lockout ended up being a time of great change for the NHL.

Rule changes saw the game speed up and young players like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin made an immediate impression as rookies. Eventually almost every team came to rely more on younger guys than they had in the past, displacing several veterans in the process.

"What happened was that we saw more younger players surface because we actually combined two classes of young players," said Lamoriello, the NHL's longest-serving general manager. "You had players who had a year more experience where they should, whether it be in junior or in the minors. ... I think we had better younger players [as a result]."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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