As is the case every November, hockey’s finest was celebrated with another special night in Toronto as four of NHL’s past stars were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
For Toronto Maple Leafs fans this was an especially big night as three former players were honoured - Joe Nieuwendyk, Eddie "The Eagle" Belfour and last, but definitely not least, Doug Gilmour. The fourth inductee - Mark Howe - came from hockey royalty, he is after all the son of the legendary Gordie Howe.
Many former Leafs have entered the Hall before, but to have three of them be honoured at the same time was a remarkable achievement. Six former players have been inducted in the past ten years, but like Belfour and Nieuwendyk, each of their stints with Toronto were short-lived and none of them could possibly compare to that of Gilmour’s tenure with the Leafs.
Gilmour spent parts of six of his 20 NHL seasons in Toronto and is still fondly remembered for leading the Leafs to two amazing, long playoff runs in 1992-93 and 1993-1994. He began his career with the St. Louis Blues and then was traded to the Calgary Flames where he won the Stanley Cup in 1989 with Nieuwendyk as a teammate. The Leafs were his third team but he also went on to play with the New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens.
Gilmour had many great seasons but was more known for his playoff accomplishments. In 182 playoff games he produced a remarkable 188 points and sits sixth in all-time in career playoff points.
“Honestly, I don’t even know what to say,” said Gilmour on Monday morning after being presented with his Honoured Member ring. “Just still in awe. Now that it’s here, it’s going to be a fun night, but I don’t think I’ve been this nervous in a long time.”
“This (Leafs) is my longest-standing team. This is still where I call home. My years in Toronto, again I can’t say enough about the management and the ownership, my teammates and the runs we had, again none of this is possible without them.”
Gilmour had his critics and was often told he was too small to make it to the NHL. Instead of taking it personally, he used those words as a source of motivation to work hard and achieve his dream.
“People said that I was too small and ‘you’ll never have a chance.’ I got to say ‘thank you’ because if it wasn’t for them saying that I would have maybe not worked as hard as I had to,” said Gilmour who was drafted 134th overall in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft.
Although he was unable to lead Toronto to a Stanley Cup win, his character and heart made him a fan-favourite in the city. It seemed as though every time Gilmour stepped on the ice, he carried the Leafs team on his back and he always played with incredible intensity - he was nicknamed “Killer” for good reason. He set a Leafs’ record and career-high 127 points in the 1992-93 season.
He returned to the Leafs in 2003 but only lasted two shifts as he injured his knee in an innocent collision, tearing his ACL and ending his season. He was not re-signed by Toronto and retired before the start of the next season, but at least he was able to finish his career with the Leafs, a team he never wanted to leave in the first place.
“The fans here have been great through my career,” said Gilmour. “You play for them. It’s amazing when you go out on the ice…part of getting mentally ready for a game and going out on that ice and seeing the fans into it and they’re reactions. Believe me that gets you motivated…but it’s just great and I would like to say ‘Thank you’ to all of them for the support.”
Gilmour never played at the Air Canada Centre so all his memories playing for the Leafs were in the old Maple Leaf Gardens.
“The aura around Maple Leaf Gardens alone, the excitement when people were coming to the games - we felt that energy and were in the dressing rooms and we would come out to start the game and the atmosphere was just amazing. It was hard to explain…that building was electric.”Well Deserved Honours
Belfour burst onto the NHL scene in 1991 and played in 74 games with the Chicago Blackhawks in his rookie season. He went on to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and also awarded the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. He was only the fourth goalie in history to win both in the same season. He quickly established himself as one of NHL’s best goalies racking up silverware season after season.
After nine years in Chicago, Belfour made a short stop in San Jose before signing with the Dallas Stars where he was able to win a Stanley Cup in 1999 with Nieuwendyk. After five years in Dallas, he spent then spent three seasons with the Leafs before ending his NHL career with the Florida Panthers in 2007. He finished third in all-time wins with 484 and 10th all-time in shutouts with 76.
“Just a lot of determination, never say die attitude and some luck for sure and a lot of people helping me,” said Belfour on his path to the Hall of Fame. “It’s just been a great experience – a lot of great memories. A lot of really nice people I’ve met over the years and I really appreciate that.”
Belfour was known for being a quirky goalie that was particular about his equipment, but also for his work ethic and preparation.
“Eddie was a perfectionist in terms of wanting his equipment right, preparation right,” said Pat Quinn, who coached Belfour in Toronto.
“He was the ultimate competitor and he wanted his teammates right as well and wasn’t afraid to challenge them to be as ready to play in that particular night as he was. He didn’t miss too often – he was a perfectionist that way. We all know him as a guy that was really finicky about his equipment but he was also finicky about getting ready.”
At the time, Nieuwendyk took an unconventional route the NHL playing in NCAA at Cornell University before being drafted by the Calgary Flames in 1985. He spent parts of ten seasons with the Flames and hoisted the Stanley Cup in just his second season. He played another seven seasons in Dallas and won the cup again in 1999 before completing the hat trick with the Devils in 2003. He played just one season in Toronto, before finishing his career with Panthers.
“It's what makes it such a special place, it doesn't discriminate,” said Nieuwendyk of the different types of players inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“I think the common bond with a lot of these faces that I see on the walls, especially the recent ones that I have some history with, is a real genuine passion and a love for the game and high competitive spirit in all of us."
Nieuwendyk was like many kids growing up in Canada and simply enjoyed playing hockey – he never imagined that he would accomplish what he did over his career.
“I would like sit here and tell you that it was a dream to do all this,” added Nieuwendyk who is now the General Manager of the Stars. “But I just grew up like a lot of kids in Southern Ontario where I couldn’t wait to get home from school and grab my net and my dog and go down to the pond and skate. I just loved the game.”
“Feeling the ice, feeling the puck on the stick, playing with my friends on the weekends – there was no better feeling. I felt that way until the day I retired.”
Former Leafs and Flames great Lanny McDonald was lucky enough to play with both Gilmour and Nieuwendyk in Calgary when both were young stars in the NHL.
“When you look at Joe Nieuwendyk’s credentials, not only with the Flames, but winning a Stanley Cup with two other teams is absolutely phenomenal,” said McDonald. “And then you look at Doug Gilmour winning the cup in Calgary but his playoff credentials all the way through and being 170 pounds soaking wet but had a fierceness of a lion, I’d put him up against anyone.”
McDonald’s fondest memory of Nieuwendyk came with the Flames came in 1989 moments after knocking off the Canadiens in six games to capture the Stanley Cup.
“I think standing beside Nieuwendyk on the bench at the end of the game with (Gary) Roberts and Nieuwendyk, the three of us standing together giggling and laughing like school girls, just having the times of our lives knowing full well we had just finally accomplished our lifetime dream.”
Howe began his career in as a winger playing in the WHA with the Houston Aeros alongside his father and brother Marty Howe before switching positions to become one of the games greatest defencemen. He entered the NHL with the expansion Hartford Whalers before having his best years with the Philadelphia Flyers, 10 seasons in all. He finished his career with the Detroit Red Wings, the same organization his father had played for 25 seasons.
“I was elated to have this dream come true given that it is a tremendous honour just to have my name mentioned with the upper echelon of hockey,” said Howe. “To actually have my name in the Hall of Fame with my Dad will mean so much to my family.”
Gordie, or “Mr. Hockey” as he is often called, was proud of his son and was happy to be alive to witness such a big moment for his family.
“It’s like the first day he was born – the excitement is there. He earned it,” said Gordie. “There’s no question that anybody gave him something, he earned it. And I think they (Hall of Fame) realized it. The positions he played and the different positions he played and the amount of great hockey he played, there was no doubt in my mind he was going to make but when.
“I’m glad I’m still alive.”
The 2012 Hall of Fame class will be just as talented as Brendan Shanahan, Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Jeremy Roenick, Gary Roberts and Curtis Joseph will all be eligible for the first time.
This article was originally published on Oye! Times