At the recent Traverse City Prospects Tournament, I was shaking Mark Howe's hand and extending my congratulations to him on his well-deserved election to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Walking back to my hotel room that night, I realized my encounter with Howe had inspired personal memories within me concerning some members of this year's HHOF class.
Growing up in Winnipeg, I was fortunate to see Howe begin his professional career with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. People who only saw Howe in the NHL think of him as an accomplished defenseman who became a first team all-star and led the league in plus-minus. In the WHA, however, Howe was one of the top left wingers in hockey. During Howe’s four years with the Aeros, they made three appearances in the final and won two Avco Cups.
Howe was one of the most beautiful, effortless skaters I have ever seen and he was also part of one of the greatest individual battles of my lifetime. During that era, the Winnipeg Jets boasted a line of Ulf Nilsson centering Bobby Hull and Anders Hedberg. At the time Hedberg was in his prime and one of the greatest skaters of any era. Most opposing left wingers had no chance of matching his tempo of play. But Howe did. Watching those two great, smart, fast and competitive wingers go head-to-head was a sight that remains in my mind's eye almost 40 years later.
The elections of Joe Nieuwendyk and Doug Gilmour have an even closer personal touch. I was with the Calgary Flames when these two players were cornerstones of the 1989 Stanley Cup championship. We also won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, missing the third by a single point.
My most compelling memory of Nieuwendyk and Gilmour is not confined to any particular game or championship. Rather, I remember their roles in the many highlight reel games of that era against the Edmonton Oilers - the ones that became immortalized as the "Battle of Alberta." I am glad I still have video of a number of those games. It was great hockey, as entertaining as any in my lifetime. There are now a total of 10 Hall of Famers from those two teams, with other worthy candidates still to be considered.
Howe, Nieuwendyk and Gilmour all played during unique periods in hockey history. The Howe-Hedberg battles of the 1970s took place during a transitional period – the formation of the WHA meant that teams had to scramble for talent, which opened the door for European players. Nieuwendyk and Gilmour played during a more stable era, with the Oilers and Flames dynasties dominating the league led by names such as Gretzky, Messier, McDonald, and MacInnis.
The elections of Nieuwendyk, Gilmour and Howe to the Hockey Hall of Fame serve as an incentive to maintain the future beauty of the game we love as we remember its heritage.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be writing his Insider Column regularly for THN.com throughout this season.