One can already imagine the bittersweet moment next November when Pat Burns is inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The fiery three-time Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year and Stanley Cup winner with the New Jersey Devils in 2003 died in late 2010. In a perfect world, he should have had a chance to walk to the podium to accept the honor himself, after having coached his last game for the Devils in 2003-04, his Hall of Fame credentials -- which included three coach of the year honors with three different teams -- all firmly established.
In 2004, Burns was diagnosed with the lung cancer that ultimately took his life. Because he isn't alive to see the recognition, there is a certain better-late-than-never quality to Burns' induction with the Class of 2014.
Still, it's hard to imagine that there won't be many a tear shed when Burns is posthumously immortalized as a builder, the announcement being made Monday afternoon by Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee officials Pat Quinn and John Davidson, as much for the opportunity missed as for the well-deserved honor itself.
"It's a tremendous honor," Burns' widow, Line Burns, said Monday. "I know that Pat would have been so happy, so grateful, so proud to accept his honor. It's a very emotional day for the Burns family, I can tell you that. I think it's a great day, not only for the family but for his fans as well.
"One word comes to my mind. It's 'grateful.' Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Line Burns admitted that she had stopped worrying and wondering about whether Burns would be so honored.
"Honestly, when I got the call today, I was very surprised," she said. "Very overwhelmed because I guess I never thought it would come this soon. You learn to be patient about this."
Whatever lamentations and regrets might be felt with Burns' late arrival to such a fitting destination, there are no such second thoughts with the other members of the Class of 2014.
In terms of character, in terms of innovation and that intangible, hard-to-grasp notion of just what constitutes a "Hall of Famer," it's difficult to imagine anyone would balk at the notion that Dominik Hasek, Mike Modano, Rob Blake and Peter Forsberg are worthy inductees.
Individually, a case can certainly be made for each of these players (and for longtime referee Bill McCreary, who was also named in the referee/linesman category).
Hasek redefined the position of goaltending, carving out a style that was uniquely his own as well as uniquely successful as his six Vezina Trophies and back-to-back Hart Trophies as league MVP will attest.
Mike Modano ranks among the top U.S.-born players of all time, finishing with 561 goals and 1,374 points and led the Dallas Stars to their only Stanley Cup in 1999 (ironically, defeating Hasek's Buffalo Sabres).
"What an amazing phone call to get," Modano said Monday. "Just speechless. A loss for words for what this has really meant to me and to all of us."
Peter Forsberg was widely considered one of the top three or four players in the NHL during his prime with the Colorado Avalanche and was one of the top clutch playoff performers of all time, with 171 points in 151 career postseason games. He also won a Hart Trophy as league MVP.
Rob Blake was a commanding presence on the blue line, won a Stanley Cup, won a Norris Trophy and was part of international success with Canada, including winning a gold medal in Salt Lake City.
But what makes this class special is what they represent in terms of the game itself, how they reflect the widespread appeal of the game, how they reflect the various permutations or elements of greatness and how their various legacies remain both unique and consistent with the idea of greatness, something the Hall of Fame has wrestled with in the past.
Four different players, four different nations represented. Three -- Hasek, Forsberg and Blake -- won gold medals (Forsberg won two) and Modano was part of the seminal U.S. team that won the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, arguably the most important moment in U.S. hockey history since the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
All four made indelible impressions on the franchises for whom they toiled. Blake, for instance, won the first Norris Trophy in Los Angeles Kings history and while it's hard to imagine it now, with the Kings having won two Stanley Cups in the past three seasons, he was an important figure in helping cement the Kings' place in the community, captaining the team for six seasons and playing a key role in the team's first trip to the Stanley Cup finals, in 1993. That Blake remains with the team as an assistant GM speaks to his longstanding bond with the franchise and the community.
Forsberg battled injuries that would cut short his great career but he was, along with current Avs GM Joe Sakic and current head coach Patrick Roy, one of the cornerstone pieces of the NHL's rebirth in Denver with the Avalanche. His international contributions were almost as important and he remains the only member of the Class of 2014 to be immortalized on a postage stamp in his native Sweden, which chronicled his winning shootout goal over Canada in the '94 Olympics.
Modano didn't just help the Stars win their lone Stanley Cup, he helped integrate that team into the local sporting culture when it moved from Minnesota in the summer of 1993. I attended his induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in the fall of 2012 and suggested he belongs on the local Mount Rushmore of sports legends, such was his influence in that marketplace.
Hasek helped make the Buffalo Sabres a contender and then won a Cup with a star-laden Detroit Red Wings team in 2002. He was also on the ice for the Czech Republic in 1998, when the NHL first ventured into the Olympic tournament. McCreary, who also refereed the seminal gold-medal game between Canada and the United States in Vancouver in 2010, recalled doing the semifinal game between Canada and the Czechs in Nagano that went to a shootout. As the list of shooters was being prepared, McCreary recalled Hasek skating out to him and asking if Wayne Gretzky was going to shoot. The Great One didn't shoot and the Czechs defeated Canada in that game and then beat Russia in the gold-medal game to usher in a new era of international hockey.
"This also tells me our game is growing," said John Davidson, president of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who joined the selection process this year and is chair of the 18-person selection committee.
"Our game is growing worldwide," he said. "When we have a class like this coming into the Hall, I think it says a lot about our game and how worldwide it really is."