All the superlatives are justified

TORONTO -- Between the three of them, they accounted for 4,636 regular-season NHL games, 623 playoff games, nine Stanley Cups, 1,093 goals and 4,326 points.

And if there has often been ample reason to quibble over some of those chosen to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame, not a quibble was heard Monday night as Raymond Bourque, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy made up one of the most distinguished classes to be inducted in recent memory.

The trio's induction marks the only time an all-defense class has been honored by the Hall of Fame.

"They're three of the greatest defensemen that ever played the game of hockey," said longtime hockey executive Cliff Fletcher, who was inducted in the builders' category.
The days surrounding the induction into the Hall are always filled with hyperbole. It is the nature of the moment.

Greatest. Best. Finest. Fastest. Longest. First. Most.

The air is positively thick with superlatives, deserved or not. But in the case of these three players, distinctive as three players could possibly be in terms of style and on-ice presence and off-ice personality, there is a sense that words may not quite do them justice.

Barring a dramatic turn of events on the ice (and let's assume for a moment that the players and owners will at some point regain their sanity and the current lockout will end), it seems unlikely there will ever be another group of defensemen who will provide both the longevity and the productivity that these three did.

"I hope that's not true," said John Muckler, who coached Coffey in Edmonton and all three during Canada Cup competition. "The game needs players like that. We need some heroes."

At a time when cynicism surrounding the game is at an all-time high, the game's future never more precarious, events like the Hall of Fame induction ceremony serve as an emotional reminder that the game's heart still beats, however irregular that heartbeat may be.

We are reminded of that beating not just in the statistics that paved the road to the Hall of Fame for Bourque, Coffey and Murphy, but in their own memories of their place in the game and the place the game has in their lives.

Murphy said he was surprised that the memories that dominated the events of induction weekend were not of his NHL accomplishments over a 21-year career, but as a young player and fan of the game.

A native of Toronto, who would later become a lightning rod for fan discontent in the mid-1990s, Murphy recalled his family's season tickets high in the rafters of historic Maple Leaf Gardens and taking the subway down to see the Leafs play with his older brother.

"The first game I went to? I remember it vividly. It was before we had season tickets. It was my birthday. I was eight or nine years old, my dad took me down," Murphy said.

Murphy's father bought tickets from scalpers for a game against the Los Angeles Kings, the team that would later draft Murphy in 1980.

"It would have to be my greatest birthday gift of all time," said Murphy, whose father passed away three years ago.

If Murphy endured an often uneasy relationship with fans throughout his career, Bourque was revered and the induction weekend has reinforced his post as one of the most popular players of all time.

During a fan forum on Sunday, a fan that had traveled from Boston rose and thanked Bourque for being a role model and then, choking on emotion, told Bourque that he'd brought his own 9-year-old son to Toronto to watch Bourque inducted as a way of passing along his love of the game.

"You could just feel his passion and the words he was saying yesterday, and there's a lot of people like that," Bourque said.

Even Coffey, whose curious criticism of former coach and general manager Glen Sather during a media session earlier in the day seemed strangely out of place, paused to wipe away a tear as he thanked his wife of 10 years and three children for their patience as his career ended with brief stops in Hartford, Philadelphia, Chicago, Carolina and Boston.

Coffey, who at one point played minor-league hockey with Murphy in Toronto, also recalled his parents' role in his development.

"Mom, I can still see you running down the driveway, coat half on, brushing hair, running to get to the car, not wanting to miss a game, which you never did. Thanks," he said.

It is entirely possible that the next significant hockey event will be next year's Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Unless there is a cataclysmic shift in attitude, the season will be canceled. No All-Star Game, no playoffs, no Stanley Cup for the first time since 1919 and no draft.

If that is so, the memories shared by the three players will have to sustain hockey fans.

If that is so, then Bourque, Coffey and Murphy have served fans well one last time.

In closing his acceptance speech, Bourque said many people ask what he misses most about the game.

"The answer is easy. I miss the guys. I miss the anticipation of the games. I miss the feeling of going into battle with teammates you truly care about. I miss driving to work with a smile on my face and when you get there acting like a 15-year-old," Bourque said. "Hockey has given me everything in my life. I owe hockey a lot more than it will ever owe me. Hockey has been my life."

Well said.

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