Phil Housley retired as the fourth-leading defenseman scorer in the history of the NHL. Only Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey and Al MacInnis had more points from the blueline than him. So why did it take him 10 attempts to get voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame?
There are a couple of theories. The first is Housley spent a good chunk of his early seasons with the Buffalo Sabres playing forward and racking up points. That’s a misconception. Housley made the massive jump from Minnesota high school to the NHL as an 18-year-old (after being selected sixth overall by Buffalo in 1982) and managed 19 goals and 66 points in 77 games as a rookie defenseman. Sure, it was the live puck era, but it was a celebrated feat nonetheless.
Housley followed up with 31 goals and 77 points as a Sabres sophomore the next year and went on to 11 straight seasons with at least 60 points.
Now, there was a stretch during his third and fourth seasons in Buffalo when coach Scotty Bowman experimented with Housley as a forward. By his own admission upon retirement in 2003, Housley told The Hockey News he played no more than 25 games as a forward in each of his third and fourth seasons (1984-85 and 1985-86) with the Sabres. That’s just 50 games total out of 1,495 during his career. That’s about 3.3 percent of his NHL playing time. That’s it. 50 games.
In those two seasons when he played some games at forward, Housley had 69 and 62 points, which is actually below his eight-year Buffalo average of 70 points.
Another theory why Housley kept getting snubbed by the Hall of Fame since 2006 is he was a prickly personality at times. One member of the selection committee told me many years ago he’d have a very tough time voting for Housley because he was such a difficult person to deal with. Downright ornery at times.
You can debate in the comments section whether a player’s off-ice traits or indiscretions should stall his Hall of Fame entry. Fact is, it did for the likes of Doug Gilmour, Dino Ciccarelli, Glenn Anderson and Pavel Bure over the years and still may be for guys like Theo Fleury, Eric Lindros and Tom Barrasso.
On the ice, Housley was a true star. He played during the same era as Coffey and shared a lot of the same attributes. Terrific skater, great passing and playmaking skills, sublime hockey IQ. Like Coffey, Housley wasn’t the strongest defensively, but his offense more than made up for it. Housley never won a Norris Trophy, nor did he ever finish as a runner-up. And he was selected to the NHL’s second all-star team just once – and he never won a Stanley Cup.
But on sheer numbers alone, Housley should have been a Hall of Famer years ago. Let me repeat – fourth all-time in defensemen scoring with 338 goals and 1,232 points. That’s more points than live puck-era inducted forwards such as Ciccarelli, Michel Goulet, Darryl Sittler, Bernie Federko, Joe Nieuwendyk and Anderson.
Housley’s induction ceremony begins Nov. 6 in Toronto. He’ll be joined by first-time eligible candidates Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Sergei Fedorov. Joining them in the builders category are Peter Karmanos Jr. and Bill Hay. Selected in the women’s category is Angela Ruggiero.
Former players and builders need at least 75 percent approval (or 14 favorable votes) from the 18-member selection committee.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN