Getting a call from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was enough to send Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith into a mild panic. Patrick Kane and Jaromir Jagr were more focused on their next game in late October than any list of the 100 greatest players being compiled by the league.
And so the six active players that joined exclusive company here Friday night were arguably the most wide-eyed men on the stage – being honoured for what they’ve done but still very much in the thick of their careers.
“I don’t expect that,” said Crosby. “Growing up, you dream of playing in the NHL. You don’t necessarily think of things like this. To be part of this group, and to have so many guys here that you look up to and kind of paved the way – were great role models for us growing up – it’s really special.
“That’s all I can say.”
Toews, Keith and Kane were preparing for a game in New Jersey a few months back when they learned that they had been selected by a 58-member blue-ribbon panel.
Bettman made a point of personally calling each of the 100 players chosen – or a surviving member of their family – and the trio of Blackhawks were taken off guard by a missed call from the man who runs the league.
“I think the first thought going through (Keith’s) mind was that he was in trouble for something,” said Toews. “I checked my phone and I’m like: ‘OK, well what did I do? We’re in the same boat, what happened here?’ I told Gary that when I talked to him on the phone.
“I think he was kind of offended that we thought we were in trouble when we were getting a call from him.”
There were no hard feelings to be found inside Microsoft Theatre as the NHL kicked off its all-star weekend in style.
Nothing like this had ever been done before. That alone made it worth the trouble.
Sure, the esteemed voters left a few worthy names off the list – personally, I can’t believe Evgeni Malkin wasn’t included – but that’s unavoidable with a project of this nature.
“My goodness,” said Wayne Gretzky. “There’s so many wonderful players that are not going to be part of this 100 and I feel bad for them and their families and their parents and their grandparents. But the 100 guys who are here, we’re so thrilled, we’re all like little kids and it’s so unique and so interesting to see us (together).”
That included the group of guys who will be playing in NHL arenas next week.
Jagr made the trip to Los Angeles even though he isn’t partaking in the all-star festivities. Crosby, Ovechkin, Toews, Kane and Keith are sticking around for the skills competition and all-star game, but you got the feeling that they’ve already experienced the highlight of their weekend.
“I don’t really know how to describe it,” said Toews. “I’m honoured, I’m flattered. I want to let myself believe it, but at the same time there’s that part of you that wants to stay humble and know that the amount of incredible people and the special players that have done so much to build this game.
“They’re the ones that make it special for you to get drafted and to realize your dream of playing in the NHL to begin with and then all of a sudden (I’m here).”
With the league having already revealed the 33 players honoured from its first half-century of existence, there were 67 spots left to hand out on Friday. They were unveiled in groups by the decade – starting with the ‘70s, ‘80s and so on.
That gave the active players a chance to sit and watch the majority of the 90-minute show before having to step on stage themselves.
They also had an opportunity to rub elbows with the likes of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr. Oh, and Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Teemu Selanne, Brett Hull, Mark Messier…you get the picture.
The conversation flowed easily.
“It’s pretty easy to talk hockey,” said Crosby. “A lot of guys are still involved with teams. They still follow the game really closely. So it’s easy to kind of speak that language for sure.”
Even though the players themselves may not have expected the honour, there was no arguing with the choices. Kane, Toews and Keith have each racked up significant individual awards while helping the Blackhawks win three Stanley Cups. Jagr has played for a quarter of a century and is among the most prolific scorers in league history.
Ovechkin and Crosby singlehandedly carried the NHL forward after the cancelled 2004-05 season and remain among the game’s best more than a decade later.
“He saved our franchise,” Lemieux said of Crosby.
Legends, one and all.
Just the kind of legends you’re still able to pay to watch play the sport that made them famous.
“We didn’t vote,” said Ovechkin. “For us to be in this company is a big privilege.”
“I’d like to think I’m midway through my career and all of a sudden I’m being talked about, being thrown on stage with some of the all-time greats,” added Toews. “I mean it’s special. To share with two close friends like Kaner and Duncs, it’s pretty incredible.
“I don’t think it’s anything that will ever sink in.”