NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, pioneering black player Willie O’Ree and Martin Brodeur, the league’s leader in wins among goaltenders, top the latest class for the Hockey Hall of Fame announced on Tuesday.
Bettman has been commissioner since 1993, during which time the NHL has expanded its footprint across North America and increased from 24 to 31 teams. During Bettman’s tenure, the league has gone from a $437 million business to one with almost $5 billion in revenue.
Along with Bettman and O’Ree in the builder category, forward Martin St. Louis, four-time gold-medal-winning Canadian women’s national team star Jayna Hefford and Russian Alexander Yakushev were part of the six-person class of 2018 that will be inducted Nov. 12 in Toronto.
“This is not something I was focused on and I’m speechless and grateful to be included with this group,” Bettman said. “I’m particularly honored to be part of a class that includes Willie O’Ree.”
NHL leading scorer Wayne Gretzky said Bettman’s efforts to help each club compete for the Stanley Cup has made the game stronger.
“His leadership and love for hockey is very evident,” Gretzky said. “Hockey has become more entertaining year after year, thanks in part to his passion for the game.”
O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL but he will be the third inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr and Canadian women’s national team captain Angela James.
O’Ree, a native of Fredericton, New Brunswick in eastern Canada, made his NHL debut in 1958 as a call-up for the Boston Bruins. The winger put up four goals and 10 assists in 45 NHL games during the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons despite being 95 percent blind in his right eye.
“This honor is long overdue as Willie has been a tremendous figure in our game both on and off the ice for over 60 years,” Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs said. “We are lucky to have been able to call Willie a Bruin when he made his debut in 1958 and we could not be happier for him to finally receive the recognition he so greatly deserves.”
Eric Zweig, hockey historian and author of “Stanley Cup: 120 Years of Hockey Supremacy” and “Glory Days: Hockey in the 1950s and ’60s,” said O’Ree played well for years in the Western Hockey League with Los Angeles and San Diego but didn’t get an opportunity with the Kings.
“Some of this, of course, may be due to the fact that he was blind in one eye — though I don’t know how many people were ever aware of that when he was playing,” Zweig said.
Now 82, O’Ree works for the NHL as diversity ambassador in the league’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative.” Sixty years after he broke the league’s color barrier, there are now about two dozen black players currently on NHL rosters.
“This honor would not be possible if I had not rejoined the league in 1996,” O’Ree said. “I was given a second wind to give back to the game.”
The 46-year-old Brodeur was a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the New Jersey Devils who was elected in his first year of eligibility as the goalie with the most wins, shutouts and games played in NHL history.
The Montreal native was the last real standup goaltender as the position moved almost exclusively to the butterfly technique, and his puck-handling prowess led the NHL to institute the trapezoid behind the net as a way to increase scoring. In net, Brodeur has a league-best 369 wins and 125 shutouts in 1,266 regular-season games with the Devils and St. Louis Blues, and he won the Vezina Trophy four times. He won 113 playoff games and had a 2.02 postseason goals-against average. Brodeur also scored two regular-season goals and another in the playoffs — more than any other goalie.
“I was fortunate to play on great teams that allowed me to play with my own personality, which is so important to a goaltender,” Brodeur said.
The Devils retired Brodeur’s No. 30 in 2016 and later that year unveiled a statue of his famous salute outside their arena in Newark. Sharks forward Joel Ward said that same year the NHL should retire O’Ree’s No. 22 like Major League Baseball has with Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, which he wears as a tribute to the player who broke baseball’s color barrier.
St. Louis, a 5-foot-8 winger, put up 1,033 points in 1,134 regular-season games over 17 seasons, won the Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and an Olympic gold medal with Canada in 2014. He’s just the sixth undrafted player in league history with 1,000-plus points.
Hefford won four Olympic gold medals and seven world championships, putting up 30 points in 26 Olympic games. Yakushev became known to North American hockey fans during the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, with 11 points in eight games. He also won Olympic gold medals in 1972 and 1976.