For you younger fans out there, let me tell you one of the strange rites of passage in life is when players you remember as pimple-faced rookies start entering the Hockey Hall of Fame. With full heads of gray hair.
Since we have Islanders fans and LHH readers from all corners of the continent and globe, I thought I'd solicit your views and do something we don't often do here: Discuss the NHLers entering the Hockey Hall of Fame today.
Ed Belfour, Mark Howe, Doug Gilmour and Joe Nieuwendyk span the high-flying '80s/early '90s and the obstruction-weighted '90s. I'll start with my own associations with each, but I'd like to hear your stories in comments:
Makes me think of: "A billion dollars."
Generally: A very good goalie, master of the square, low-blocking butterfly. Cantankerous and unlikeable for opposing fans, with one gnarly mullet, he nonetheless earned everything he got.
He was part of some epic Blues-Blackhawks battled back in the day, and even today you'll occasionally hear a "Beelll-fooour" call in St. Louis just for old time's sake and because it just has a nice ring to it. (Incidentally, the brief stretch when he was a goalie consultant for the Blues was an awkward time for Blues fans.)
Makes me think of: Flyers.
Generally: Impressive for a legend's son to be so good, in such an unassuming way. The stories of his switch from forward to defense remind me of that ideal hockey player: One who is simply good at hockey rather than possessing specialized skills conducive to one position only. For carrying the weight of Gordie on his shoulders, Mark Howe had one helluva career.
I haven't run across many Isles fans who hate Howe from those fantastic '80s battles -- there were other Flyers to draw rage -- but he always impressed me on their runs to the finals with the Oilers. I can't make a statistical case or elaborate analysis of whether Howe, who still saw spot duty at forward in the '80s, should be in the Hall. But for me it passes the gut test.
Makes me think of: 51 goals as a rookie. And again as a sophomore. (Technically he had a 9-game, 5-goal trial in his prenatal year, 1986-87).
Generally: Another great all-around player who did not require a lot of cajoling to get the defensive side of the game, Nieuwendyk's career spats are a perfect reflection of the transition from the '80s to the slogging mid-late '90s: His scoring went down as scoring went down leaguewide. 51-51-45-45 and then boom: Trap Country.
Impressively, he was still putting up 60-game, 20-goal seasons in his late 30s. Like so many, including all three of his HOF classmates, the end came when the injuries piled up and the body could no longer fight them off with youth.
Coda: Funny to think that he became a Star in exchange for Jarome Iginla. I remember that trade, how Iginla was a pup then, and now he's on the back nine of his own career.
Sometimes I think the Hall of Fame exists just to make everyone feel old.
Makes me think of: Dreams shattered.
This is a tough one for me. Like so many kids, #9 was my favorite number. But for me it was because of Clark Gillies and Doug Gilmour -- two perfect blends of skill and toughness. Everything you desired of a hockey player. While Gillies was a fierce, imposing presence, Gilmour was a scrappy skillful dog who backed down from no man.
Unlike so many other Blues stars (see: Joey Mullen), Gilmour's exit from St. Louis came not because of money but because of the kind of scandal that the Post delightfully runs in giant, all-caps type: Something to do with a teen babysitter. In September 1988, the scandal broke and shocked a (relatively) small Midwestern city, the trade happened quickly ... and no criminal charges filed.
These situations always put fans in impossible positions: You do not know what (if anything) happened, you know that money can protect celebrities, and you know that same money makes them targets. Innocent until proven guilty meets the rights of the abused.
To this day I don't know what to think of it, but it was always sketchy, as the family allegedly tried to extort money from the Blues and Gilmour to remain quiet, and never contacted police. There was always a money element to it -- a $1 million civil suit which broke the story -- that made the allegations more suspicious than your typical athlete case. But who can ever know from the outside? Regardless, damage done. The next time he played in St. Louis, he heard chants of "Pervert!" from some sections of the crowd. I learned a powerful lesson about getting to attached to favorite players, about fans, about the ambiguity inherent in watching a sport where money, illusion, and opportunity for exploitation collide.
My two G's, Gillies and Gilmour defined #9 to me. Yet nobody thinks of Gilmour as #9 anymore. No one thinks of him as a Blue anymore. The rest of his career -- from a Cup with Calgary to a mid-season holdout on the Flames to his many heroics with the Leafs, to becoming a journeyman as his body and skills faded -- they are all just surreal postscripts to a jarring coming of age in my life as a fan: Ultimately, we know nothing.
But I know Gilmour is supposed to be #9. And they tell me he was a great player.