In the run up to the new season after a 310-day lockout, several NHL legends decided to hang up their skates. One by one, greats like Ron Francis, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Vincent Damphousse and Mark Messier skated into the professional sunset. All hockey fans were sad to see them go.
In Toronto, however, at the Hockey Hall of Fame, the avalanche of megastar retirements brought two key questions: Does the lockout year count in the three-year waiting period, and can more than four players be inducted in any one year?
Both of those questions will be addressed by the 18-man Hall of Fame induction committee, which is chaired by NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Jim Gregory. The league's executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, former coaches Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour, Leafs coach Pat Quinn, Bruins president Harry Sinden and Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita are among its members.
The group will meet during induction week to make decisions on those two important questions. If they count the lockout year as part of the waiting period, these recently retired greats will be eligible for induction in 2007. If not, they'll have to wait until 2008.
Of course, I don't have to wait to make my Hockey Hall proclamation. Here's my top five list of future Hall of Famers in the order I think they should be inducted:
1. Mark Messier (Oilers, Rangers, Canucks, Rangers again)
I don't know how anybody gets in ahead of Messier. Only Wayne Gretzky totaled more points. Only Gordie Howe played more games. Only a small handful of players have won more than Messier's six Stanley Cups. And, his team and leadership skills are legendary. This is a no-brainer.
2. Scott Stevens (Capitals, Blues, Devils)
Now, it gets a little tougher. As a physical defenseman, Stevens doesn't have overwhelming offensive numbers. But, when he was on the ice, opponents and fans knew it. Much of what made Stevens special is intangible. He was the cornerstone of three Cup winners in New Jersey. It's a tough call, but Stevens is my No. 2 guy.
3. Ron Francis (Whalers, Penguins, Hurricanes, Maple Leafs)
The game's No. 2 all-time playmaker with 1,249 assists, Francis currently ranks fourth on the league's points list. He's ranked third with 1,731 games played. He earned a pair of Cup rings with the Pens in the early 1990s. A player of subtle skill, Francis was among the game's best faceoff men. On my list, he falls just a hair below Stevens.
4. Al MacInnis (Flames, Blues)
Big Al will be forever known for his booming slap shot, often clocked at over 100 mph. Big shot aside, MacInnis was a terrific defenseman who could spring forwards with his long passing skills. He was part of the Flames' Cup winner in 1989. MacInnis won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman in 1999.
5. Brett Hull (Flames, Blues, Stars, Red Wings, Coyotes)
Actually, Hull won't be eligible for the Hall of Fame until 2009 because he played in those five games this season. If he were eligible, I might move Hull into the No. 2 spot behind Messier. He scored big goals in big games. Only Gretzky and Howe netted more goals than Hull, who played fewer games than both icons.