Artifacts tell a story worth preserving

TORONTO -- Walk through the main entrance into the Hockey Hall of Fame and you are greeted by the always emotional, sometimes tearful images of the players enshrined here. It makes one wonder if Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman shouldn't pay a visit to see what their labor stoppage has put at risk.

This, after all, is where hockey's story is told.

"For each person that comes through the door, something different catches their eyes and tells them a different story," says the Hall's curator Phil Pritchard. "Put it all together and you have the history of the game."

It is a story told in the shrieks of children as they make simulated saves in the Hall's interactive section.

It is told in the passion of older "kids" as they take a turn behind the microphone, calling some of hockey's greatest goals.

It is told by a woman from San Jose who happened to see Paul Coffey play in an exhibition game in 1989, fell in love with the way he skated and became a San Jose Sharks season-ticket holder and volunteer at NHL All-Star Games. She promised herself a trip to Toronto the year Coffey was inducted into the Hall.

"And so here she is," Pritchard said.

It is a story told in the rusty, misshapen horseshoe encased in a display marking the Tampa Bay Lightning's march to its first Stanley Cup last spring.

As Hall of Fame officials were collecting memorabilia last summer, one of the Lightning's Zamboni drivers asked if they were interested in the team's good-luck charm, a rusty old horseshoe found in the dirt behind the St. Pete Times Forum. The drivers mounted the horseshoe on one of the machines for every home game. And before they made their first pass of the night, each driver would touch the shoe for luck. It now enjoys a place in the Hall of Fame next to Martin St. Louis' helmet and Dave Andreychuk's jersey.

Not far away is another good luck charm -- Canada's lucky loony -- a one-dollar Canadian coin that carries special meaning for legions of Canadian hockey fans. Prior to the gold medal game between Canada and the United States at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Canadian ice-makers planted the coin at center ice. No one knew it was there until after Canada won its first gold medal in 50 years.

"I was in the dressing room at the time. Wayne (Gretzky) came up to me and shook my hand and said, "Don't spend this in a pop machine. It means a lot to Canadians,'" Pritchard said. "I put it in my pocket and it never left my pocket until I got back to Toronto. For Canadians that loony meant so much to anyone who's put on a pair of skates."

For years, the Hall of Fame was housed in a tiny, non-descript space at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds west of downtown. It was to that location a young man named Wayne Gretzky would travel from his home in Brantford and wander for hours. In 1993, however, the Hall moved to downtown.

With more than 350,000 visitors annually, it is the most visited of the major sports Halls of Fame. Features like interactive displays and traveling exhibits make it an innovator in the business.

"They're now copying us," Pritchard said.

The exhibits tell a story more richly textured than simply grooved wood and tattered leather, like the pair of tattered skates belonging to Bryan Trottier that hang, incongruously in the officials' section. They seem out of place until you learn they were actually worn by supervising official Frank Udvari on December 30, 1978, when he was forced to come out of the press box and fill in for an injured referee.

The various manners in which the artifacts are procured are equally engrossing, like the red, white and blue toque Jose Theodore stretched over his goalie mask during last fall's Heritage Classic. Initially, Theodore wanted to keep the hat for his own collection.

"But the more the conversation went along the more he felt it deserved to be in the Hall of Fame," Pritchard said.

Recently, the Hall came into possession of a stick that was donated by Lionel Conacher to a Toronto high school as a prize for a contest. The letter asking if the Hall was interested in the artifact belonging to one of Canada's greatest athletes (Conacher is a member of both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame) came from Winnipeg, 1,400 miles away.

"Our eyes and ears are always open," Pritchard said.

Although the Hall of Fame pays tribute to the game as a whole, its centerpiece always has been the National Hockey League, its stars and its moments. And so, as it has throughout the hockey world, the lockout of players by NHL owners has had an impact.

Attendance is down and layoffs are not out of the question.

On a Saturday when the Maple Leafs are playing a few blocks away on "Hockey Night in Canada," especially against rivals like the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and, more recently, the Ottawa Senators, fans flock to the Hall during the day for a hockey appetizer before the main event. Even visiting teams drop by, like the Carolina Hurricanes did on an off day during the 2002 Eastern Conference finals. Among the visitors milling around the exhibitions and schoolchildren that day was then-Hurricanes captain Ron Francis, who is expected to be a first-ballot inductee.

"It's a circular kind of thing," Pritchard said.

While the lockout has hurt business it also allows the Hall to pursue its true purpose -- "to honor and preserve the history of the game of ice hockey" -- without borders or restraints. So on the Hall's schedule in the coming months is an exhibit that commemorate the game's 75th anniversary in Slovakia and a trip to the Central Hockey League All-Star Game in Laredo, Texas.

As for the never-ending search for artifacts, calls already have been placed to other leagues and to the 65 nations that now play the game. Next year, for instance, visitors may see an Alaska Aces jersey from the ECHL bearing Scott Gomez's name, a reminder of hockey's troubled time.

In all, the Hockey Hall of Fame is 63,000 square feet, 8,000 of which is reserved for storage space. Only the "Great Hall," the old bank building originally built in 1885 that forms the cornerstone of the complex, is on street level.

It is there that the NHL's most prized possessions, the trophy collection and the plaques honoring those enshrined in the Hall of Fame, are found.

"This is a special room," said Hall of Fame employee Ron Ellis, who played 1,034 NHL games and won a Stanley Cup, all with the Toronto Maple Leafs. "When (visitors) walk up those stairs almost as if they were walking into a cathedral, they start whispering," Ellis said.

In an open vault off the great hall is Pritchard's personal favorite artifact, a Stanley Cup ring worn by Billy Barlow, a member of the 1893 Montreal AAA team which won the first-ever Stanley Cup. Barlow's daughter, then in her 80s, contacted Pritchard about the ring. She'd been to the Hall of Fame and thought it was the perfect place for her father's keepsake.

She has since passed away, but the ring remains a daily reminder of the game's past and a subtle reminder of what is at stake for its future.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.