TORONTO -- Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s too bad NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman weren’t at the fan forum leading up to Monday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, especially given the pessimism that currently surrounds the labor talks. It’s too bad the two leaders couldn’t have seen firsthand the kind of special bond that exists between fans and players -- in this case, Hall of Fame inductees Joe Sakic, Adam Oates, Pavel Bure and Mats Sundin -- the kind of relationship the lockout puts at risk.
Several fans told Bure that he was the reason they became hockey followers. Another fan spoke with reverence at a memory of Sakic stopping during a Stanley Cup celebration to get his young son a drink of water.
Many of the 250 or so fans crammed into the Great Hall at the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto were sporting jerseys with the inductees’ names on the back.
Funny that during an hourlong question-and-answer session Sunday, an annual event since 1999, when Wayne Gretzky was inducted, not one question was asked about the lockout. It was certainly a measure of the respect that the fans have for the four inductees and maybe, just maybe, a reflection of the anger and apathy that threatens the game during the second lockout in the past eight years.
Certainly, after watching the owners and players stumble around for the past two months and hearing the ominous reports out of Sunday’s talks in New York, it was refreshing to hear the players talk candidly about their experiences during long and storied careers.
Mats Sundin, for instance, told fans that he wished he had retired a Toronto Maple Leaf instead of returning to play his final half-season in Vancouver with the Canucks.
“I wish I would have finished my career as a Maple Leaf, for sure,” Sundin said.
After contemplating retiring after the 2008 season, he returned late in the 2008-09 season with the Canucks in an effort to win the championship that had eluded him as the longtime captain of the Leafs, something he described as a “business decision.”
Sundin insisted that Leafs management was doing all it could to put a winner on the ice, and he believes it will someday bring home its first Stanley Cup since 1967.
“You just have to keep believing as a Leaf fan,” Sundin said. “The Leafs will win the Cup, it’s just a matter of when.”
When -- if? -- the National Hockey League and its players ever find their way to a new collective bargaining agreement, one of the most interesting storylines will be the evolution of Hall of Famer Adam Oates from assistant coach to head coach with the Washington Capitals.
And more to the point, how Oates handles erstwhile superstar Alex Ovechkin is bound to speak volumes about whether he is the long-asked question of who might bring a championship to Washington.
Ovechkin, of course, has seen his stats take a nose dive in the past three seasons with goal totals dropping from a career-best 65 in 2007-08 to 38 and 32 the past two seasons.
One of the first things Oates did after being named head coach this past summer was meet with Ovechkin. And if you think Oates is planning to keep Ovechkin on the same tight leash former coach (and former teammate of Oates in Washington) Dale Hunter did, you’ve got another think coming.
“I get the game," Oates told ESPN.com. "I met with Ovi for three hours in Washington. I’m a communicator. I really am. I wanted to let him know that I understand where he’s coming from. I understand that when he drives to the arena tonight, he’s thinking about scoring."
That’s what he should be thinking about. It’s his job, Oates said.
The newest Hall of Famer recalled the criticism of Alex Rodriguez during the New York Yankees' disappointing playoff run this season.
“A-Rod doesn’t get to come and hit singles,” Oates explained. “Those are the facts of life.”
Similarly, Ovechkin doesn’t get to come to the rink and be a plus player; he needs to be more, to do more.
“There is a certain double standard,” Oates explained. “My job as a coach is to make sure Ovi understands it, everybody understands it, let him know I understand it, but then I also have to teach him the game with that.”
What kind of vibe did he get from his captain?
“I got the vibe that I got as a fan,” Oates said.
The Russian star insisted to Oates that he would always work hard, but that was never an issue for Oates.
“I said, 'You don’t have to tell me that, I watch you.'”
Sundin and Sakic, of course, played together in Quebec before Sundin was traded to Toronto in the summer of 1994. Sundin recalls being nervous as he skated at his first practice with the Nordiques. Then Sakic skated over and said, “Hey kid, finally I have someone to play with,” Sundin recalled.
Sakic, perhaps a little embarrassed, joked that he didn’t remember it exactly that way.
Both players said they thought that if the NHL returned to Quebec City, as has been rumored for several years, now a team would thrive there.
"I don't think you're going to find anywhere where people are so passionate about the game," Sakic said.
Heroes for heroes
Gretzky wasn’t in attendance at the question-and-answer session, but his name figured prominently for the inductees as Bure and Sakic named him as their favorite player growing up.
Bure recalled meeting Gretzky when he was a 10-year-old boy when Gretzky was in Russia during the offseason, then again as a junior player as part of a Canadian tour. When Bure’s Russian squad visited Edmonton, Gretzky and Paul Coffey, another Hall of Famer, visited the team in their dressing room and shook hands with the players.
Sakic recalled playing against Gretzky in his 13th NHL game. He lined up for a faceoff in the Nordiques' end, and Gretzky took the puck from him off the draw and scored.
“It was the first minus of my career, but it was the best minus of my life,” Sakic said.
Oates, from the Toronto area, grew up a Chicago Blackhawks fan and loved Bobby Hull. Later, of course, he would star with Hull’s son, Brett, another Hall of Famer, in St. Louis.
Sundin grew up idolizing Mats Naslund and Mario Lemieux.
Stastny and son
Sakic had the rare opportunity of playing with fellow Hall of Famer Peter Stastny and Stastny’s son, Paul, who currently plays for the Avalanche, the franchise with whom Sakic played his entire career and for which he still works as a special adviser and alternate governor.
“He’s a great kid,” Sakic said. “He’s a different player than his dad, different personality, more laid-back.”
Not just a helping hand
Oates, of course, is considered one of the game’s greatest playmakers, but he joked that he did more than pile up assists.
“I did score a couple of goals,” he quipped.
He described one of his most memorable goals coming in overtime off a faceoff where he beat Pat Lafontaine and pushed the puck forward and beat the goaltender.
“I hit it, and it went in,” Oates recalled.
Bure, who scored 437 times in his career, said his most memorable goal was the double-overtime goal he scored against Calgary in the first round of the 1994 playoffs as the Canucks advanced to the finals that spring against the New York Rangers, losing in seven games.
Sakic recalled his goal in the gold-medal game of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which sealed Canada’s first gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years, as his top goal-scoring memory.
Sundin recalled fondly his 500th goal scored in Toronto against Calgary. He scored three on the night, and his 500th won it in overtime while the Leafs were short-handed.
“It was a special night,” he said.
Dropping the gloves?
If the goals were memorable, the few fights the four skilled players had were less so.
Bure recalled fighting a member of the rival Flames when he was a youngster with the Vancouver Canucks and being knocked down immediately.
Oates had two fights in his career and recalled the first in October 1986 against Charlie Bourgeois of the St. Louis Blues near the end of a period. His teammates came by to congratulate him on the scrap in the dressing room.
“They were all laughing,” Oates said.
Sundin’s first fight was similar in nature, as he recalled duking it out with Dave Hannan of the Sabres in his rookie year. It was the second-to-last game of the regular season.
“I got punched 84 times,” Sundin recalled.
Sakic just shook his head.
“I remember that,” he said.
As for the classy center, he recalled fighting Doug Gilmour, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame a year ago.
“He started it,” Sakic joked.
Of the four inductees, Sakic is the only one with his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. He was asked about the moment in 2001 when he took the Cup from Bettman and immediately handed it to Ray Bourque, another Hall of Famer, in a poignant Cup moment. It was the only Cup Bourque would win, although Sakic said it wasn’t something he’d thought about a lot before the moment.
“It just kind of happened,” he said.
The longtime Avs captain joked that, had he not won a Cup earlier in his career (1996), it might have been different.
“If it was my first one, he wouldn’t have touched it,” Sakic quipped.
The other side
Theo Fleury had a great view of Pavel Bure’s dramatic Game 7, triple-overtime goal in the 1994 playoffs. The goal helped Bure’s Canucks eliminate Fleury’s Flames.
"It was a great play," Fleury said. "There was a turnover in the neutral zone, and Pavel did what he did, he sneaked behind the defense, Jeff Brown made him a great pass and Bure went in alone and made a great move on Vernie [goaltender Mike Vernon]. That propelled them all the way to the [Cup] finals."
Added Fleury on Bure: "He’s probably the most exciting player that’s played for a long time."
Former teammate Gary Roberts was asked Sunday what he believed was Sundin’s great skill as a player.
"I think the ability to skate with the puck and get to the net with 2-3 guys climbing on him," Roberts said. "I remember many nights he’d say to me, 'Just get to the net.' I knew he’d get there with 2-3 guys on his back. He was just a workhorse. The more he played, the better he played."