NHL welcomes Willie O'Ree, Gary Bettman, Martin Brodeur among Hall of Fame inductees

TORONTO -- From the inspirational Willie O'Ree to the controversial Gary Bettman, the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted a memorable Class of 2018 on Monday night in Toronto.

It's a class that included former New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, owner of a dozen NHL records and one of only two netminders to play over 1,000 NHL games; winger Martin St. Louis, an undrafted and undersized player who starred for the Tampa Bay Lightning and scored 1,033 points career points; Jayna Hefford, who won four Olympic gold medals with Team Canada; and Alexander Yakushev, a Russian scoring star who captured Olympic gold twice.

O'Ree, whose image on his Hall of Fame plaque included his iconic fedora, gave an inspiring speech that covered his moment breaking the color barrier in 1958 with the Boston Bruins to his time as a diversity ambassador for the NHL. His induction was widely celebrated by the players on the red carpet prior to the event, including a very impressed Wayne Gretzky.

"Willie O'Ree is someone very special," Gretzky said. "My dad, who I think is one of the nicest people who ever lived, has been highly endorsing Willie O'Ree for a long time. He didn't break Gordie Howe's records or Bobby Hull's records, but what he's done to encourage kids around North America to have a dream about playing in the NHL ... sometimes, statistics aren't everything. Sometimes, it's about what you bring to the table to make the game better. Without question Willie O'Ree fits that description.

"He's a guy that probably went through harder times than a lot of NHL players. For him to keep his chin up and be smiling and still talking about how great the game is, that's the kind of person we need in our sport."

O'Ree used this platform to continue his push for more diversity in hockey.

"True strength comes from diversity and inclusion. It makes the game better," said O'Ree. "Tonight, I'm here to tell you that we're not done, because the work is not done. We have barriers to break and knock down and opportunities to give. I leave this with you: When you return to your communities, take a look around. Find a young boy or girl who needs the opportunity to play hockey and give it to them. You never know. They may make history."

Also in the Builders Category, and on the other end of the popular-opinion spectrum, is Bettman. The first NHL commissioner after years of league presidents, Bettman took over the NHL in 1993 after serving as deputy commissioner of the NBA under David Stern. Under his watch, the NHL grew from 24 franchises to what will officially become 32 after Seattle's expansion bid is approved, while the league's revenue increased from $400 million in 1993 to a projected $4.54 billion in 2018-19.

But Bettman has also been a lightning rod of controversy for the NHL, presiding over three lockouts that lost the NHL a total of 146 regular-season games -- including an entire season canceled in 2004-05 to establish a salary cap. He has also come under fire in recent years for denying any linkage between brain injuries and CTE, as well as the league's overall approach to player safety and post-retirement care.

Bettman's speech acknowledged both the staff that has supported him as commissioner through the years and his family, which acted as a support system through years of public criticism from NHL fans.

"I think everyone knows that my public appearances get an enthusiastic reaction," he said. "I get booed when I present the Stanley Cup and at the NHL draft. I even managed to get booed in Las Vegas before the Vegas Golden Knights ever played a game. So let there be no doubt: Tonight should erase any claim that election to the Hockey Hall of Fame is a popularity contest."

To the surprise of some, Bettman made an overt reference to the league's work stoppages on his watch.

"I look back far less fondly at the work stoppages. They were not a first choice, but a last resort. But even in retrospect, regrettably, there was no other way to secure the stability, competitiveness and strength that the league enjoys today," he said. "While I strive for perfection every day, it's not always possible for that perfection to be attained. But we will not stop trying."

To that end, Bettman squashed any talk that this career achievement portends that the end of his commissionership was near, saying: "For those of you might think at this reflective moment that I might be getting ready to retire: Forget it."

Brodeur is the all-time NHL leader in games (1,266), wins (691) and shutouts (125) among his other records. He won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender three times, the Stanley Cup three times and two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada. His ability as a puck-playing goaltender was a catalyst for the NHL's creating a trapezoid behind the goal to restrict netminders from doing so.

Brodeur closed out the night with a teary-eyed speech, becoming visibly emotional when speaking about the late members of his family: His father Dennis, a renowned sports photographer in Montreal, who passed in 2013; his mother Mireille, who died in 2016; and his brother Claude, who passed away in 2017.

In particular, he spoke about quitting hockey at 14 years old after getting cut by a youth team. "When my big brother Claude found out about that, he grabbed me right away by the collar and brought me right back to my team," said Brodeur, choking up. "Like any teenager, you need your family and friends to support you and keep you going toward your goal. I'm thankful for him.

"Alright," said Brodeur, composing himself. "This should be easier now."

The NHL schedule-makers were kind to St. Louis, as the Tampa Bay Lightning were scheduled to play the Sabres in nearby Buffalo on Tuesday. So a dozen of his former teammates in Tampa, including stars Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, were on hand to help in induct him.

An emotional St. Louis recounted his history as only the sixth undrafted NHL player to score at least 1,000 career points. Undersized, as St. Louis is listed at 5-foot-8, and undrafted, he was a model of perseverance, and that was his message at the end of the speech.

"For all the kids out there listening: Follow your dream. Believe in yourself. When it seems like all the doors are closing, look for a window and find a way in," he said. "The reason people don't reach their full potential is because they quit too soon."

Hefford won Olympic gold with Team Canada in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. She also won seven IIHF world championships. She played in both the NWHL and the CWHL, retiring as the league leader in goals and points in the latter women's pro league.

Hefford spoke about how, as a young player, her dream was to play in the NHL, and dream was never discounted or denied by anyone in her life. Thus, it was allowed to thrive.

"If you don't take anything else away from tonight, I hope it's this: Dream big. I want you to know there are no rules for that dream," she said.

Hefford is now the commissioner of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, and spoke passionately about creating opportunities for all who seek to play the game -- and doing so by eliminating obstacles the might hold them back.

"As humbling as this honor is, my story has always been about more than me and more than hockey. It's about the power of opportunity," she said. "I believe in the power of opportunity. As a mother, I know we're all born without biases or prejudices. I believe if we find a way to maintain that innocence in our children, they'll have a chance to do whatever they choose to do regardless of gender, size, religion or race. I hope you'll join me in advocating the power of opportunity for everyone.

Yakushev is perhaps best known for being one of the Russian stars who played for the Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series against Canada, finishing that event as their leading scorer. He also starred for Moscow Spartak in the Soviet league.

He gave a speech in Russian that chronicled his career, including the 1972 Summit Series against Canada that cemented his legacy with so many NHL players -- including Gretzky.

"Mark Messier and I got to spend one of the greatest lunches ever with Yakushev in Moscow, years ago," Gretzky said before the ceremony. "We were telling him that in 1972, he was our favorite Russian player. In Edmonton, when you made a great play in practice, we would say that was 'Yakushev-ian.' We were telling him the story, and he started crying. He didn't believe us. But we thought he was their best player. A combination of Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr."

Also honored during Hockey Hall of Fame weekend were New York Post writer Larry Brooks, winner of the Elmer Ferguson Award for excellence in hockey journalism, and Toronto Maple Leafs broadcaster Joe Bowen, who earned the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster.

Among the first-time players eligible in 2019 are Tampa Bay Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier; fellow former Bolt and San Jose Shark Dan Boyle; New Jersey Devils forward Patrik Elias; and, most notably, Canadian hockey icon Hayley Wickenheiser.