'All I wanted to be was a hockey player': Willie O'Ree inducted into Hall of Fame
Published Tuesday, November 13, 2018 8:29AM AST Last Updated Tuesday, November 13, 2018 12:41PM AST
TORONTO -- Willie O'Ree simply wanted a chance to show what he could do.
Years later and under vastly different circumstances, the same went for Martin St. Louis and Jayna Hefford.
There was a common theme as the Hockey Hall of Fame welcomed its newest members Monday -- one of opportunity.
"At the age of 14, I had set two goals for myself: play professional hockey and one day play in the National Hockey League," O'Ree said in his speech. "All I wanted to be was a hockey player.
"All I needed was the opportunity."
The first black player in NHL history and the third to enter the Hall, O'Ree would get that chance when he was called up by the Boston Bruins for a game against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan 18, 1958.
"I did not know I was breaking the colour barrier," O'Ree, now 83, continued. "That's how focused I was on making my dream come true."
O'Ree, St. Louis and Hefford were joined by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, all-time goalie wins and shutout leader Martin Brodeur and Soviet-era Russian star Alexander Yakushev as the Hall's class of 2018.
St. Louis, Hefford, Brodeur and Yakushev were inducted in the players category, while O'Ree -- who suited up for just 45 games in the NHL, but would return to the fold in 1996 as a goodwill ambassador -- and Bettman went in as builders.
Undersized and undrafted, St. Louis rocketed from castoff to Hart Trophy winner and two-time scoring champion once he got his chance with the Tampa Bay Lightning, including a Cup victory in 2003-04.
"For all the kids out there listening: follow your dreams," St. Louis said from the podium. "Believe in yourself. When it seems like all of the doors are closing, look for a window and find a way in."
The five-foot-eight winger is one of just six undrafted players to reach 1,000 points and was a member of Canada's men's Olympic team that won gold in 2014.
"The reason that some people don't reach their full potential is that they quit too soon," St. Louis said. "Be a good teammate both on the ice and in life."
And for Hefford, that chance was getting to play a sport growing up that was supposed to only be for the boys.
She won four Olympic gold medals and seven world championships playing for Canada, and is the sixth woman to enter the Hall.
"My story is about more than just hockey," Hefford said. "My story is about the power of opportunity.
"Dreams without borders are powerful, and fewer barriers represent freedom. Hockey has given me so much. I wouldn't be up here tonight if I didn't have the opportunity to play the game."
Speaking of opportunity, the NHL gave one to Bettman more than 25 years ago when the league plucked him from the NBA to serve as its first commissioner.
Since then, the NHL has expanded from 24 to 31 teams, with annual revenues ballooning tenfold to around US$5 billion.
"Everyone knows that my public appearances get an energetic reaction," Bettman joked during his speech. "I get booed when I present the Stanley Cup, particularly to a road team, but even from the home team, and at the draft.
"Tonight should erase any claim that election to the Hockey Hall of Fame is a popularity contest. Rather, I hope that my induction is a testament to what is clearly a collective contribution."
A three-time Stanley Cup champion and four-time Vezina Trophy winner with the New Jersey Devils, Brodeur won 691 games and had 125 shutouts in his 20 seasons.
"This is a really special day for me," said an emotional Brodeur, the shoe-in of this year's class. "I'm honoured and humbled."
A two-time Olympic gold medallist for Canada, Brodeur shares or owns 12 NHL records and played more than 70 games in a season 12 times in his career.
"He competed with a smile on his face," Devils teammate and 2013 inductee Scott Niedermayer said Sunday at a Hall of Fame event. "He just embraced the big challenge. He wasn't overwhelmed."
Yakushev starred for the USSR in the 1972 Summit Series, scoring seven goals to tie Canada's Phil Esposito and Paul Henderson for the lead in the best-on-best showcase. He won Olympic gold in 1972 and 1976 and was elected to the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 2003, but never got the opportunity to play in the NHL.
"Mark Messier and I got to spend one of the best lunches ever together with Yakushev," Wayne Gretzky said before the ceremony. "In Edmonton when you made a great play in practice, we would say: 'That was Yakushevian.'
"We were telling him the story and he started crying. He didn't believe us."
While the NHL has seen incredible growth during Bettman's time at the helm, he's also overseen three lockouts, including one that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, with another work stoppage looming as early as 2020.
Olympic participation and how the league has dealt with concussions have been among some of the other issues where criticism has been directed his way.
Like former NHL presidents Clarence Campbell and John Ziegler, Bettman was enshrined while still in the top job, but a 2017 inductee said there's no doubt the commissioner belongs in the Hall.
"There's so many things he's done to help our game," Dave Andreychuk said. "It's a deserving honour."
Bettman trumpeted the league's growth in the United States in his speech, but also lamented the labour unrest.
"They were not a first choice, but a last resort," he said. "In retrospect, regrettably, there was no other way to secure the stability, competitiveness and strength our league enjoys today."