The Hockey Hall of Fame can be a very serious enterprise, with the annual late June announcement about which players have joined the eternal pantheon prompting either polite applause or impassioned arguments of injustices committed. But as someone who thinks pretty hard about who belongs in and who doesn’t, I find myself having what I guess would count for singular notions.
I do not like compilers. If it were up to me, Mike Gartner would not be in the Hall, but Dino Ciccarelli would be. The latter had times when he was elite, whereas the former hardly ever did.
I would not include Mark Recchi, who is likely to get in this year. I’d not include Dave Andreychuk and his 600+ goals, nor Joe Nieuwendyk. Rogie Vachon works for me, Doug Gilmour certainly does, but there are far too many Canadiens, just like the Celtics have far too many retired numbers. I get bothered when I smell the aroma of legacy, or anything that comes with doing something slightly above average for a long time.
What increasingly matters for me is doing something at elite levels, in unique ways and making stylistic impacts on the game. Changing components of it. I’d rather see a peak of six seasons, from a mercurial player, who did what he did better than anyone else ever has, or close to it, than 30 goals and 70 points year in, year out, for fourteen years.
Let’s bring the back the eyeball, I say. I watched Gartner, for instance, and I never saw a team look scared of Mike Gartner, prepare for Mike Gartner, and I certainly never, ever, ever saw what I live to see as a hockey person: the transcendent moment from that player. The series of transcendent moments. And as I go along in life, I realize that I need the transcendence. In all portions of my life, but even when I sit myself down and wonder what might happen in this game I am about to watch.
If you are doing something that has little prospect of this kind of emotional and mental and even physical overleaping of the day in, day out—that sprawling, excessive beast of the status quo, who seems more present in our quotidian lives than ever—I am going to advise you to jump out of that pool and into another. Which is sometimes what I do when I think about the Hall of Fame.
So let’s try an exercise: here are five players I’d put into the Hall of Fame, in the vein of this spirit. Of the five, only two, I believe, will ever actually make it; a third might. The other two have no shot. But let’s start with them.
5. Tim Kerr
I used to joke that Alexander Ovechkin was a rich man’s Tim Kerr, but at this point, that feels like an unkind slight of the latter. My bad. Kerr scored 50+ goals—and he would get up into the mid-to-upper fifties—in four straight seasons with the Flyers. He was the Jedi of the power play. I’m going to call him the best power play sniper in NHL history. He redefined what it meant to go a man up, just like those old, mega-dominant Canadiens made it such that after they scored on the man advantage, rules had to be changed so that the opposition needed to be sprung from the box, or else the Habs would get three or four more, which wasn’t good for balance in the game. Kerr would have had another 50-goal season were it not for injury (he had 48 in 69 games in 1988-89). He was big and you might think of him like hockey’s Gorman Thomas—the slot version of a swing-from-your-ass kind of guy who could do little else—but he was a good defensive forward, too. He also scored 40 goals in 81 playoff games. He couldn’t pass like Mike Bossy, but for a decent chunk of a decade, he was pretty much the Boss’s equivalent of a goal scorer. By the by, he’s tenth all time in goals per game average (.565). Stats don’t come much bigger than that. And by way of comparison: Gartner had 43 playoff goals in 122 games.
4. Pat Verbeek
Another guy who will never make it and another guy who changed the face of a lot of games and the faces of a lot of opponents. Look, I get that we’re all nicey-nicey now, not because we’re actually deep-standing moral people all of a sudden, but rather because in this society it’s about pretending to be things rather than actually being them, and a hidden transgression is ostensibly the same as a nonexistent one. So long as people don’t know you’re being horrible in your personal life, you can post on Facebook all the livelong day about justice so that everyone will think you’re John the Baptist. How many people are okay with being who they are, openly? Pat Verbeek always was. Granted, who he was could be a touch, let us say, difficult. His nickname, after all, was the Little Ball of Hate. He could be dirty, he’d get 240 penalty minutes a season, but he’d also score 40 goals. He was a leader, became a defensive nightmare for oppositional attackers and played on the edge so willingly that he frequently leapt from one edge to land on another edge. Edge to ledge, edge to ledge. He’d make you want to throw yourself off one of the latter at times if you were facing him, but man did he impact games. He was like Brad Marchand with less dangle and a better knack for laser-beaming shots to corners and a thuggier aspect without the childish antics.
3. Rick Middleton
Okay, the first guy here who might get in someday. Middleton began his career as a plugger with the Rangers, which extended to his early time in Boston, before he became the Bruins’ version of Guy Lafleur—with a lot less flow and numbers, but he could fill up a statline as well. And he was every bit as magical to watch, just different. Lafleur’s game was the outer portion of the ice, that speed going down the wing, then uncorking the slapper and beating the goalie far-side. Middleton’s was in tight, making his waterbug moves, threading the puck through skates and under sticks, He was shifty. His nickname was Nifty. He played on Gretzky’s line at the ’84 Canada Cup, and if Middleton hadn’t been getting older and Barry Pedersen hadn’t been dogged by injuries, the Bruins would have had a junior version of the Gretzky-Kurri Edmonton combo. He scored 50 goals once, but he had a nice run of near top-ten scoring finishes, and one whale of a playoff campaign in 1983 that stands among the best ever—and he didn’t even reach the Final. Super strong defensive player, too, probably because he stuck in the league in the first place on the back of chasing down other guys and grinding in corners.
2. Boris Mikhailov
He’ll get in, and it’s already been a long time coming. I think Americans tend to know Mikhailov for the 1980 Miracle on Ice game, which came at the end of his career. As a result he’s seen as somewhat villainous, Darth Vadar-esque, but this is all Cold War nonsense. He was an exuberant player, skating the right wing on a line with Valeri Kharlamov and Vladimir Petrov that is one of the ten best in hockey history, maybe even top-five. He scored 428 goals in 572 league games in the Soviet Union and won multiple MVPs, but what you really need to know is that, year-in, year-out, he was the best Soviet player when the Soviet Union was at a hockey high for about a decade. He was also gutted by the Miracle on Ice, always hating to talk about it. He played with that same steely pride, but this was pliable steel, with Mikhailov on gorgeous rushes in which five players seemed to be telepathically wired to each other, like an advancing ballet troupe as one entity. It was helpful that Sergei Makarov got in last year.
1. Theo Fleury
Play a thousand games and average more than a point a game, and you’re off to a good start, Hall-wise, provided your numbers aren’t empty calories. Fleury’s never were. His problem is his problems: the drinking and substance abuse, the terrible life decisions, the fact that so many people detest him. His book was a brave one, documenting the hells of sexual abuse, of which Fleury was a victim. Did that in turn make him a victim unto himself? Look: you’re always in large part responsible for what you do to yourself and to others. Just like everyone else is tasked—if they are trying to be a good person—in understanding what someone might be doing because of something they’ve been through. Doesn’t write it off, but that’s our shared humanity, that give and take of understanding as we strive for empathy that, in turn, helps make us less a stranger to ourselves, and what we have been through, and where we might be failing as Fleury failed. But I’ll tell you this: game-freaking-changer. Transcendent. Underline it. Transcendent. He was small, he was fast, and an entire season could change, boom, out of nowhere, on something Theo Fleury did. He played on some stacked Flames teams, and he was always the guy who could do the most in one single play. He finished in the top five for the Hart twice and he had 79 points in 77 playoffs games, twice averaging two points a game in a postseason. You don’t want him on your team? How about this: you don’t want him on your team in a game of Hall of Fame players v. other Hall of Fame players? Because he’s going to poke a puck past, I don’t know, Larry Robinson and he is going to barrel in on Terry Sawchuk and fake him out of his pads and slide it home. He just is. You know he is. And I know a Hall of Famer when I see one.