The Hockey Hall of Fame welcomed, perhaps, its greatest class ever this past Monday night in Toronto. Between Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille, and Steve Yzerman, you are talking about three of the Top Ten all-time leaders in goals, three of the 21 most prolific point-producers, and the 7th-highest scoring defenseman in NHL history.
Put them together and this fantastic foursome scored 2,348 goals, notched 3,220 assists, and recorded 5,568 points over their NHL careers that collectively spanned 5,419 games in 79 seasons in total.
Add Devils executive Lou Lamoriello---who was also inducted into the HHOF on Monday---to the mix and this group has totaled 10 Stanley Cup championships, as well.
Eye-popping numbers, for sure.
But it's not just the numbers that makes this group so special. Yzerman is regarded as one of the game's greatest captains ever. Hull was one of the sport's most colorful and outspoken ambassadors. Leetch and Lamoriello helped cement USA Hockey as a true force on the international scene. Robitaille---and Hull, too, for that matter---proved that through tremendous dedication and hard work, a player does not have to be a highly-regarded prospect or first-round pick to become a star, setting an outstanding example for youth players everywhere.
Their individual speeches all found a way to touch me during Monday's ceremony. Hull describing not what he brought to the game, but what the game of hockey gave to him, and explaining that he represented all of the beer-league players out there. Yzerman humbly explaining how he became the sport's pre-eminent leader by the good fortune of those great players and coaches he worked alongside for 22 years in Detroit. Lamoriello remembering to mention that we all should keep cancer-stricken former Devils coach Pat Burns in our prayers. Robitaille providing inspiration to those players who are not considered fast enough, strong enough, or talented enough to play the game of hockey. And Leetch pointing out that he played hockey because he loved the sport, not because he planned to be an NHLer one day, and then encouraging today's youth coaches to always remember to keep the game fun for the kids.
I have had the good fortune to work in the National Hockey League as a broadcaster and reporter while these five greats were in the primes of their careers. I remember Robitaille as one who was always quick with a genuine smile and a twinkle in his eye, just a really good guy. Hull's hearty laugh and sarcasm in locker-room conversations we had over the years stands out to me, too. Yzerman's grace, on and off the ice. That's what always struck me about him. Grace and class all the way. Lamoriello? Loyalty and intensity. Those are the two words that come to mind when I think of him.
As for Leetch, well, he is the one of this group I know the best. I was fortunate enough to cover his career, pretty much right from the start. It's funny, I remember a fellow reporter and good friend Bob Grochowski---Bobby G to you that remember SportsPhone---sitting next to me in the press box at Madison Square Garden during Leetch's early days, saying, "They have never drafted a player like this before. He is going to be the greatest Ranger ever."
You could argue that Bobby G was right on the mark, once Leetch's career was done.
There are so many memories I have of Leetch---end-to-end rushes, his amazing stamina and recuperative powers where he could play in every key situation, 35 minutes or so a night during the playoffs, his ability to play through brutal injuries, his elite-level skating and on-ice vision that were second to none---and I feel extremely fortunate to have covered his career so closely.
Of course, the spring of 1994 was his crowning achievement. Mark Messier was the Rangers captain. Adam Graves was the team's heartbeat. Mike Richter the impenatrable force in goal.
Brian Leetch was the soul of that Stanley Cup championship team that ended 54 years of misery on Broadway.
One other thing I'll always remember about Leetch. Though very soft-spoken, Leetch was a very intelligent and articulate athlete, and very respectful of me, the media, the fans, and the organization, no matter the circumstances---good or bad.
I thought Leetch really summed it up best on Monday night.
"If you look at the Hockey Hall of Fame as one big team, and everybody in one big locker room, even if I never get on the ice for one shift it's still the best team in the world to be on."