TORONTO – Dressed sharply in a crisp jet-black suit, Martin Brodeur spoke from the heart, a tremble in his timbre as he went through his thank-yous, from Lou Lamoriello to the brass in St. Louis who poured him “a cup of coffee” when the music was fading.
His voice cracked as he thanked his parents, watching down from above, and his children, looking up front and centre. What they gave for all of this.
Just because you’re a no-brainer, first-ballot Hockey Hall of Famer whose championships and style literally changed the game (goodbye, trap; hello, trapezoid) doesn’t mean the emotion and magnitude can’t rock you the way offences seldom could.
“Sorry,” Brodeur said Monday night from the podium, during one of his pause-and-sniffles. “Been a long weekend.”
Scott Niedermayer, alongside Scott Stevens, handed Brodeur his plaque and was instrumental in helping him raise three Stanley Cups and snatch two Olympic gold medals.
The winningest goaltender that ever lived always kept his composure on the grandest stage, until tonight.
“I think if Marty is ever going to be nervous, it’s probably going to be a little bit now, getting up there to speak. He’s a hockey player, he’s a goaltender, not a speech-giver,” said Niedermayer, a Hall of Famer in his own right.
“He was smiling in the middle of practice. He was smiling before big games. And I think that really gave the rest of the team a ton of confidence and belief in what we’re doing no matter what the situation was and probably made us all better because of it.”
Joining Brodeur — the biggest no-brainer of the 2018 class — were worthy additions Martin St. Louis, Willie O’Ree, Jayna Hefford, Alexander Yakushev and Gary Bettman. Sure, one could nitpick and argue some were getting in too late or too soon, but that’s not the spirit of the thing.
Introduced by Wayne Gretzky, Bettman kicked the proceedings off more as an emcee than an inductee, giving a summary of each of the other five honourees’ resumes before going into his own history and feelings for 20 minutes.
He even made reference to the work stoppages under his watch. “They were not a first choice but a last resort,” Bettman said.
Inducted on the same day the league he oversees settled a concussion lawsuit with a group of alumni, the oft-jeered Bettman’s offered a scouting report on himself: “He could take a hit to make a play.”
The acting commissioner has a flair for self-deprecation and self-awareness, noting his being booed by fans of the Vegas Golden Knights before the expansion team he was integral to birthing had even played a game.
“Tonight should eliminate any doubt that election to the Hockey Hall of Fame is a popularity contest,” Bettman quipped.
When we stopped him on the red carpet, Lamoriello said honouring Bettman is “without question” the right call.
“If you take a step back and look at what the commissioner has done for this game, how he’s expanded the game, how he’s been aggressive in changing the game as the players changed—the speed and strength of the game, it needed changes to allow the game to be the greatest game it is today,” Lamoriello said.
“You have to satisfy a lot of ownership to get a lot of these decisions made, and he has a way of getting everybody to come together. We hear boos in different buildings, but sometimes I think that’s a lot of respect too.”
Referencing St. Louis — an inspiration to current undersized, undrafted stars like Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Marchessault — Bettman described the Lightning sparkplug as “too small to succeed—I can actually relate to that.”
In a fortunate bit of scheduling, many of St. Louis’ former Tampa Bay teammates lined the stage in surprise support. (The Bolts have a night off and are playing nearby Buffalo Tuesday.) Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier were also in the house. Dave Andreychuk presented St. Louis with his plaque, and St. Louis singled out John Tortorella as the coach who molded him.
“I think about my father talking to me about Maurice Richard and Guy LaFleur. Obviously, I’ve seen Gretzky and Lemieux play. The fact you’re part of that group — that’s what hits me more than just what I did. It’s overwhelming almost, and such a humbling place,” St. Louis marveled.
“I look around, look who’s in here. And now you’re a part of this.”
An emotional St. Louis, whose legend rises far above his 5-foot-8 stature, dedicated the evening to his late mother, the one who “convinced me that my heart and will was taller than anybody else,” and sent a message to kids everywhere.
“When it seems like all the doors all closing,” St. Louis said, “look for a window and find a way in.”
Of all these underdog stories, the unlikeliest, classiest and eldest member of the ’18 class is 83-year-old pioneer Willie O’Ree, the first black NHLer, who impossibly broke that barrier despite having sight in only one eye.
His due is overdue.
“You earn your way into the Hockey Hall of Fame,” said Gretzky. “Willie O’Ree is somebody very, very special.
“My dad, who I happen to think is one of the nicest people who’s ever lived, has been highly endorsing Willie O’Ree for a long time… for what he’s done to encourage kids and the youth throughout North America who have a dream about playing in the NHL. Sometimes statistics aren’t everything. Sometimes it’s about what you bring to the table to make our game better.
“And for him to have his chin up and be smiling and still talking about how great the game is, that’s the kind of people we need in our sport.”
Yakushev, at the after-party, through an interpreter, kept his message short: “Thank you, Canada, for inventing hockey.”
Hefford was absolutely eloquent in both delivery and message, a reminder why she’s now commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
She shouted out her gold-medal teammates (“I love that we can say one word or tell one story and it takes us to the back of the bus”) before turning her focus outward, pumping up the value of “dreams without borders” and railing against the biases and prejudices that invade our sport, our world.
“My story is about the power of opportunity,” Hefford said.