KELLEY: Hall looks beyond obvious candidates

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Jim Kelley



The list is something less than a true who's who of hockey. Former St. Louis great Bernie Federko is being inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame here Monday. So too is legendary New York forward Clarke Gillies and Montreal/Washington defenseman Rod Langway. Going in as a builder is coach Roger Neilson. Neilson and Langway's credentials are pretty much beyond question. Neilson is one of the most successful and beloved coaches of all time. A veteran of the NHL and junior hockey, his list of accomplishments and innovations is as long as the history of the game itself. Though he never won a Stanley Cup, Neilson is regarded as the coach who epitomizes winning, dedication, preparation and innovation. He was one of the first to incorporate the extensive use of videotape, using it for both a coaching aide and a teaching aide. While it is commonplace in today's game, it wasn't even thought of until Neilson came along. Langway, meanwhile, is generally recognized as one of the best defensive defensemen the National Hockey League has ever known. He's a Stanley Cup champion and a two-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. Two Norris trophies for a defensive-minded defenseman is virtually unheard of, and Langway, who played for both Montreal and Washington in a 15-year career, won those two honors in back-to-back seasons. That's something that hadn't been done in the NHL since the days of the legendary Bobby Orr. Federko, however, is another story. So too is Gillies. There's a school of thought around the NHL these days that hockey's standards for inclusion in the Hall simply aren't tough enough, that it's gone from being a shrine for great hockey players to being a repository for anyone who made any kind of noteworthy mark in the game. There were whispers of that last year when Pittsburgh's Joe Mullen and Chicago's Denis Savard went in. There was similar mumbling when the Hall inducted the group of Canadian stars that faced off against the Soviet Red Army Team in the memorable 1973 Summit Series but ignored that Soviet team, which was one of the most dominant teams of all time. There were (and are) similar complaints regarding the lack of inclusion of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that stunned the hockey world and the world in general by beating the Soviets and winning the gold medal that year. There are always arguments concerning the builders section, a group that is littered with owners, commissioners and even a few convicts. There have also been complaints, modest, but not singular, that that the Hall has become something of a victim of its success (especially here in Toronto, the oft-proclaimed "center of the hockey universe"). The contention is that the demands that come from having to raise money — both for the operation of the Hall as a tourist destination and the charities it often represents — have made the Hall beholden to its corporate client base here. The argument is that to not have a Hall of Fame induction in any given year and to not have a somewhat broad base of inductees ranging from players, to officials, to builders and even media would result in a substantial drop in the revenue streams that sustain the Hall. It begs the question as to whether or not the Hall would have the courage not to induct anyone if a year comes along in which there truly were no deserving candidates. We here at FOXSports.com have wondered that ourselves from time to time. Dick Irvin Jr. has never given it a thought. Irvin is one of the best known and most respected names in hockey. Now in his 70s, Irvin has spent his life in hockey. He's authored six books on the subject and spent most of his adult life as the play-by-play or color-analyst voice of the Montreal . Before he made his own mark in the game, he spent his childhood years alongside his father, a legendary coach of the and one of the most successful coaches the game has ever known. Irvin Jr. has his own plaque in the Hall. He is also a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee. "I don't believe that for a moment," Irvin said over coffee Sunday morning. "The year Wayne Gretzky went in (1999), had he not gone in that year I truly believe they wouldn't have put anyone in." The most-voiced opinion at the time was that the Hall wanted to singularly recognize the greatness of Gretzky. The story was that the Hall made a special accommodation to a special player and deliberately named him and him alone among players. Several members of the induction committee stated as such, but Irvin maintains that the Hall's standards have not slipped, that had Gretzky not gone in that year, no one would have and that there may well be times in the future when no player might be deemed worthy. For this year's induction, Irvin noted that Federko won the admiration of the board not only because he had a lengthy and productive career, but because he also had the best numbers of any forward not in the Hall. Irvin also noted that Federko produced those numbers while playing for teams that did not have a great deal of on-ice success. Irvin is guarded about the selection process because as a committee member he has taken an oath not to divulge information about the inner workings of the Hall or the nature of its deliberations. He did, however, note that Federko earned the bulk of his points in an era when few people ever saw much of hockey west of Chicago. "First of all, he put St. Louis on the (hockey) map," Irvin said. "Just because a lot of people didn't see him outside of St. Louis doesn't mean he wasn't doing the job. For a lot of seasons he was the face of the St. Louis . He also had great success on teams that really weren't very good. "One of the things you have to respect is that a career isn't just about numbers, it's about what you bring to the game and what you leave. Bernie Federko did a lot of great things and not just for the St. Louis ." Federko finished his NHL career with 369 goals and 761 assists. Regarding Gillies, a player who has fewer points than Federko (319 goals, 378 assists) and a great many players who aren't in the Hall, Irvin noted that there is more to the game than just scoring. "A player like Clark, he had a tremendous influence on the game," he said. "He was a classic two-way forward who was the epitome of an era when big men had a big role in the game." Gillies was known for his ability to work the corners and the front of the net, and he was a legendary fighter. Fighting has not had a huge place in the Hall, but over decades it has played a big role in hockey. In the era when the game was policed by the players on the ice rather than the administrators in the commissioner's office, Gillies played the role of ice cop as well as any player, ever. "The thing about the Hall that a lot of people don't know is how thorough the debate is," Irvin said. "Singling out the guys with the big, big numbers, that's not the hard part. Recognizing the ones who made a contribution in the many other facets of the game, that takes a dedicated effort." In Irvin's mind, the board has done that. It has always done that. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address, jkelley@foxsports.com.
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