The 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony was an enshrinement of a surefire candidate in Martin Brodeur, a renowned international veteran Alexander Yakushev, and a controversial yet innovative commissioner in Gary Bettman.
In addition, greatness was celebrated from three other unlikely sources.
Indeed the complement of Jayna Hefford, Martin St. Louis and Willie O’Ree, who took divergent paths into earning hockey’s highest honour, can be considered a hat trick of underdogs.
Hefford, the sixth woman to be inducted into the Hall, grew up in the 80s Kingston, Ontario playing on boys’ teams. With no female players to emulate, she idolized NHL players, including her favorite, Wayne Gretzky.
Dominating the scoresheets for the Kingston Kodiak minor hockey teams, Hefford caught the attention of Team Canada, and in 1997 she participated in what would be the first of twelve career appearances at the Women’s World Championships. Hefford went on to forge a career of international excellence. Along with teammate Hayley Wickenheiser, Hefford became the only women’s hockey player to earn a medal in five straight Olympics from 1998 to 2014, the latter four being gold.
She played for fifteen seasons for the Brampton Thunder in what is now the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the league of which she was named interim commissioner this past summer. In 2015-16, the CWHL introduced the Jayna Hefford Trophy as an annual award for the league’s most outstanding player.
“I’m proud to be part of a class that I think collectively represents a number of common themes: having a bigger heart than our physical stature, displaying a willingness to overcome barriers just to play the game, and a commitment to leaving an impact on the game internationally,” Hefford said at her induction speech on Monday.
Certainly Hefford epitomizes the excellence of a smaller player, as does one of her male counterparts on Team Canada. At 5-foot-5, Hefford stands just three inches shorter than the diminutive Martin St. Louis, an Olympic gold medallist in his own right.
St. Louis starred at the University of Vermont, but went undrafted despite being three-time nominee for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in U.S. college hockey. After being offered a contract from Calgary in 1998, he played two uneventful years with the Flames that included a stint in the minors. Eventually, St. Louis’s contract was bought out, leading to a resurgence with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“In my first 20 NHL games, I barely played. It wasn’t because I wasn’t fast enough, strong enough or skilled enough. It was mental. To me, I really felt I was scared to fail,” St. Louis reflected.
It was in the Sunshine State that St. Louis blossomed into a bona-fide superstar. St. Louis silenced his critics, disproving the notion that he was too small for the league. In 2003-04 St. Louis completed the rare feat of winning the Art Ross Trophy, Hart Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season; the first player to do so since Wayne Gretzky, seventeen years earlier.
St. Louis played 13 seasons with the Lightning, winning two scoring championships and five All-Star selections. At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, St. Louis added Olympic gold to his resume that already included a 2004 title with Canada at the World Cup of Hockey.
As much as St. Louis and Hefford overcame physical and gender obstacles en route to Hockey Hall of Fame careers, neither of them ever had to endure the racial prejudices faced by Willie O’Ree.
O’Ree broke the colour barrier on January 18, 1958 when he became the first black player to suit up for an NHL game, skating for the Boston Bruins. Remarkably, O’Ree was a standout in junior hockey, despite permanently losing the sight in his right eye while playing for the Kitchener Canucks.
Undeterred, O’Ree never disclosed his injury, and instead persevered through a shortened NHL career that included hostilities from opposing players and fans. In Chicago his front teeth were knocked out from the butt end of a stick.
Although O’Ree played just 45 career games in the NHL, he paved the way for black players to enter the league. Mike Marson followed in O’Ree’s footsteps in 1974. From there, the likes of Grant Fuhr, Tony McKegney and Val James came into the league. In 1998 O’Ree was named the Director of Youth Development for the NHL and USA Hockey’s Diversity Task Force, a non-profit program for minority youths.
His impact as an ambassador for the game has been immeasurable. For two decades he has travelled worldwide, promoting the league’s “Hockey Is For Everyone” initiatives. Today the careers of players such as PK Subban, Devante Smith-Pelly and Wayne Simmonds are testaments to the legacy that O’Ree has left.
“Hockey is a very unique sport. In a room you can dribble a basketball or kick a football. But in order to play ice hockey, you need to get on the ice, it’s the only way you’re going to develop your skill,” O’Ree said.
“Now with the explosion of more rinks a lot of kids are coming out of junior saying ‘all I have to do is apply my skill and work hard.’ As I said, there’s no substitute for hard work. If anyone says that there is, they’re lying to you.”
Hefford. St. Louis. O’Ree. Three very different careers, united by perseverance, all culminating in their rightful place alongside hockey’s greatest legends.
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.