TORONTO — Scott Niedermayer and Chris Chelios won four Norris Trophies and seven Stanley Cups between them, becoming two of the elite NHL defencemen of their era.
Chelios needed a “lucky break” or two to make it from improbable beginnings in Chicago, while Niedermayer always seemed destined to be a star. They shared the spotlight Tuesday by headlining the 2013 class of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Niedermayer and Chelios made it in their first year of eligibility, another connection for two men who were among the best on the blue-line for over a decade. They’ll be inducted together Nov. 11 along with power forward Brendan Shanahan, successful team Canada defenceman Geraldine Heaney and coach Fred Shero.
“I was part of one era, I think Chris has probably been part of a few,” Niedermayer joked. “The one thing that I do remember playing against Chris was he was one of the toughest guys to play against, even as a defenceman. He was always giving me a hard time on the ice, making life miserable. Hopefully in November it’s not the same when we get to Toronto.”
Niedermayer had 172 goals and 568 assists in 1,263 games and won four Stanley Cups, three with the New Jersey Devils and one with the Anaheim Ducks. He won the Norris Trophy winner as the league’s top defenceman in 2003-04 and the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP with Anaheim in 2007.
“It was just a matter of when he was eligible,” former teammate and current Devils assistant coach Scott Stevens said. “From the day he retired, there was no question in anyone’s mind in hockey that he would be a first-ballot and be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
Niedermayer’s play could described his play as effortless, how he was able to control a game with such poise. Opponents noticed that very well.
“I think the biggest reason why I was mad at him was because he made it look so easy,” Chelios said. “As far as his skills and his leadership and (how) he went about his business, I find him very comparable to Stevie Yzerman, the way he conducted himself on the ice. I have all the respect in the world for Scott playing against him.”
Chelios earned his own respect clawing his way up the ranks of hockey. He had trouble making teams as a teenager and moved with his family from Chicago to San Diego before finally getting an opportunity with the Moose Jaw Canucks at age 17.
Chelios wound up playing 23 full seasons and parts of three more, winning the Norris Trophy three times on the way to becoming arguably the best U.S.-born player.
“There was probably no reason in the world where I should’ve played in the NHL because of where I grew up being in the restaurant business, no hockey players, really, (were) at least playing organized hockey from my neighbourhood,” Chelios said. “Right place at the right time, I guess. It’s a crazy journey, that’s for sure.”
The journeys of Niedermayer, Chelios and Shanahan intersected at various times during their playing careers. Shanahan got to be teammates with both his fellow NHL player nominees and met Heaney through international competitions playing for Team Canada.
Shanahan, who recorded 656 goals and 698 assists and won three Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold medal, probably has the best appreciation of this class as a whole.
“Scott was definitely a guy — and Chris — hard to play against so when you got play with them, it was a thrill,” he said. “I can say that I spent years playing with Cheli and there’s not another guy that comes to mind that you consider going into a tough situation with that you want to have looking out for you and on your side.”
Heaney fit into that category in the women’s game, becoming the third female player elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Already in the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame for her international accolades, this meant even more for the Irish-born defenceman who became one of Canada’s best.
“As a child growing up you watch it on TV and it was a male game when I played,” Heaney said. “Going down to the Hall of Fame many times, you would never see any females, so you really didn’t think, ‘Could this ever happen?’ I’m so glad that it has.”
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero wondered if this would ever happen for his father, Fred. Fred Shero died in 1990, but his two Stanley Cups as coach of the expansion-era Philadelphia Flyers and the innovations he made by hiring an assistant coach and instituting systems figured to make him a fit in the builder category.
Ray Shero was playing football on the beach with his family Tuesday when he got the long-awaited call.
“I never expected this to happen,” he said. “I think it’s a great step and an honour for my father, certainly.”
Niedermayer and Chelios didn’t have to wait. For Niedermayer it was “surreal,” while it was the final playing honour for Chelios after a career that took so much work to build.
“You’d listen to his stories about growing up in Chicago and how he ended up where he did, probably just because he was such a fierce competitor that nothing was going to stop him,” Niedermayer said. “That’s what it felt like playing against a guy that he was just going to be out there to do anything he could help his team to win, whether it was a pre-season game or a Stanley Cup final game, he was doing everything he could to help his team win, and that’s really what stands out to me.”