The '89 Flames: Is that Hall there is?

Jean Lefebvre
June 26 2009 10:39AM

NHL Hockey Hall of Fame

One of the relatively overlooked consequences of this week’s Hockey Hall of Fame announcement is that the 2002 Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings suddenly have four members who have been or soon will be enshrined in the shinny temple.

This tells us several things.

  1. Given the relative recency of that 2002 season and the mandatory three-year waiting period before a player can be considered for Hall of Fame induction, the Motowners of that season were older than dirt to already have a foursome in the hockey shrine.
  2. Given the fact that certainly four, likely five and possibly six more members of the ’02 Wings are destined to join Messrs. Larionov, Yzerman, Hull and Robitaille, that club may wind up being better represented at the Hall of Fame than any club in the past 35 years. And as long as salary cap penny-counting remains a part of the modern-day NHL way of life, it’s hard to imagine any single team employing such a collection of stars, even if the some of the marquee names of the 2002 Red Wings were hardly at the height of their powers.
  3. Examining the rosters of the Red Wings and other recent champions reminds us what a remarkably balanced team the 1989 Calgary Flames were.

On point No. 2, the aforementioned Hull, Robitaille, Yzerman and Larionov are extremely good bets to one day be joined in the Hall by 2002 colleagues Dominik Hasek, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan.

It’s too early to make the call on Pavel Datsyuk, who was a rookie on the 2001-02 Wings, but suffice it to say that the 30-year-old Russian dynamo’s already impressive body of work and potential to add on has him on the right path.

Add it all up and that’s potentially 10 enshrinees on one roster. If that comes to pass, the ’02 Red Wings would be the most-inducted team since the 1973 Montreal Canadiens, who boasted an astounding 11 future Hall-of-Famers (Cournoyer, Dryden, Lafleur, Laperriere, Lapointe, Lemaire, Frank Mahovlich, Henri Richard, Robinson, Savard and Shutt).

There have been numerous star-studded Cup champions and dynasties since then, but none have boasted double-digit Hall-of-Famers and very few have even come close.

The only teams in the neighbourhood were the 1978 and 1979 Canadiens, who each had nine inductees (Dryden, Lemaire, Savard, Lafleur, Gainey, Lapointe, Shutt and Robinson all played on both teams while retiring 1978 captain Cournoyer was replaced by 1979 newbie Rod Langway).

The New York Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s has five Hall of Famers (Bossy, Trottier, Potvin, Smith and Gillies) and there has been plenty of griping that Gillies’ inclusion means the Long Islanders are over-represented.

As famously talented as the other dynasty of the ’80s was, the Oilers never had more than six current Hall-of-Famers on any of their five Cup-winning squads (the first three Edmonton champions featured Anderson, Fuhr, Gretzky, Kurri, Messier and Coffey).

The 1991 Penguins also boasted an embarrassment of riches in the talent department but it would seem the best they can hope for is eight HOFers (Coffey, Francis, Lemieux, Mullen, Murphy and Trottier are already in; Jagr and Recchi are excellent candidates to one day join them).

The 1994 New York Rangers this week added Brian Leetch to a Hall-of-Fame class that already included ex-Oilers Messier and Anderson but that might be as far as it goes depending on how the voters feel about Mike Richter’s candidacy.

The 2001 Colorado Avalanche has two inductees (Patrick Roy and Raymond Bourque) another sure bet (Joe Sakic) and one better-than-average candidate (Rob Blake). After that, there’s a guy who’s worthiness for the Hall will be tested by his fragility and a couple of don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you cases.

Peter Forsberg managed to play 49 more career games than Bobby Orr, another battered superstar whose career was dramatically impacted by injuries, but we’re sorry, no matter how good Foppa may have been, he’s no Bobby Orr. Besides, if voters show the same indecisiveness about casting ballots for Forsberg as Forsberg has demonstrated about his oft-contemplated retirement from the NHL, Peter hasn’t a chance.

Adam Foote has had a pretty nice career with lots of distinguished international service, but it’s an uphill struggle for defensive defencemen to get elected. Besides, any votes for Foote when the time comes will only open up the old Should-Kevin-Lowe-be-in-the-Hall can of worms again.

Which brings us to the ’89 Flames. So far, Calgary’s one and only championship has three honoured members — the 3M club of McDonald, Mullen and MacInnis.

Of the not-yet-eligible group, Joe Nieuwendyk and his 564 career goals should keep him in good standing, although this whole Dave Tippett/Marc Crawford thing seems like a shaky start if Joe Who is looking for entry into the Hall’s builders’ wing as a backup plan. Still, with 2010 featuring a relatively weak class of first-time candidates, Nieuwendyk has a fighting chance.

After that, it gets a little dicey.

The recently retired Gary Roberts was a very good player and his comeback from a potential career-ending neck injury is a Hall-of-Fame story, but his credentials seemingly fall short of induction. Then again, previous highly questionable admissions such as Bill Barber and Clark Gillies will forever keep alive the whole if-they’re-in-then-he-should-be-in debating position.

Theoren Fleury’s well-publicized demons sabotages what otherwise would be a pretty decent case for Hall induction. Or, at the very least, prompt Hall inclusion.

Otherwise, voters have so far managed to pass over Mike Vernon’s 385 wins, Doug Gilmour’s 1,414 points and Gary Suter’s 845 blue-line points and American passport. Of course, that might have something to do with the strength of the Hall-eligible classes since those ex-Flames first appeared on the ballot, but it’s not like Suter, Vernon and Gilmour are the only guys on the waiting list.

Folks like Lowe, Dino Ciccarelli, Phil Housley, Pavel Bure, Adam Oates and Dave Andreychuk are also all part of the Hey What About Me Club and if voters have found reasons to keep them out before, it’s no sure thing that they won’t continue to do so.

Regardless of what happens to those ’89 Flames still waiting by the phone, it’s interesting to note the ratio of players who are Hall-of-Famers and those who legitimately deserve to be part of the conservation.

In addition to the half-dozen maybes already mentioned, there’s also Hakan Loob who could have been on the list had he not decided to return to Sweden at age 28.

The bias against defensive defencemen means Brad McCrimmon was never a serious threat for inclusion and the even tougher struggle for defensive forwards to get noticed means Joel Otto never had a prayer, but both guys were extremely good at what they did.

And when you remember that eventual Hall-of-Famer McDonald was at the tail end of his career and a marginal contributor to the ’89 club and that several other Hall candidates on the Flames that year were either just starting out (Roberts, Nieuwendyk, Fleury) or injured (Suter), it drives home the point that the champions of two decades ago were more about depth and less about star power.

***

Oh, apparently there’s some sort of NHL function this weekend, so perhaps a prediction or two is in order.

Going out on a limb here (and with apologies to Kent, who penned an excellent Flames draft primer earlier this week) but on draft weekend expect Calgary to:

  1. Trade down from the 20th pick to acquire additional choices
  2. Make a deal involving an NHL player
  3. Have at the ready a Flames jersey with the name “Olsen” on the back
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Lefebvre is in that awkward stage of hockey following -- old enough to fondly remember the Cleveland Barons and too set in his ways to accept charity points and games where there's a winner but apparently no loser. As a long-time ink-stained wretch, he's also a firm believer in the old Bobby Knight quote about journalists: "All of us learn to write in second grade, but most of us go on to better things."
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#1 Librarian Mike
June 28 2009, 07:54PM
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Great article Jean. I can't remember who it is who said it, but the basic quote is that if you find yourself debating whether a player deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, then they don't belong. I like how baseball does it in that if no one gets the required percentage, they're out.

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