Hockey Hall of Fame's Class of 2012 deserves better than this
Sunday's Legends Classic was reduced to a sleepy matinee by the NHL lockout
The crowd had a Pavlovian reaction to the sight of Gary Bettman in a video
In saner times, thousands more would have hailed Toronto icon Mats Sundin
TORONTO -- There could have been a roar heard all the way down Bay Street, one that lingered at the intersection of Yonge and Front where the Hockey Hall of Fame sits.
It could have been a Friday night, prime-time reception at the Air Canada Centre in front of a national TV audience, followed by a game between the Maple Leafs and Devils. The scalpers would have named their price and stood with confidence that it would be met in this city where demand for hockey has always exceeded supply.
Instead, it was on a wan Sunday afternoon that Maple Leafs icon Mats Sundin strode onto the ice to receive perhaps his final cheers from an ACC crowd. With a third of the arena curtained off, partially to serve as backdrop for an '80s Canadian new wave act named The Spoons, Sundin and the three other player inductees from this year's Hockey Hall of Fame class played their "Legends Classic" mostly in front of what seemed to be a crowd of close friends and relatives.
GALLERY: Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2012
Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic, Pavel Bure and Adam Oates, in other words, were just four more victims of the NHL lockout that hangs over this city like one of its nicknames: "The Big Smoke." (Sabres play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret and Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor are also being inducted.)
So the Legends Classic became a sleepy matinee. Not much of a tribute Sundin, a son of this city who, like Sakic, will be inducted on Monday night in his first year of eligibility. Not much of a tribute to the Leafs' all-time Leafs leading scorer and one of the greatest players in international hockey tournament history (83v points in 69 games, four gold medals).
Sakic, the humble British Columbian who won MVP honors during Canada's 2002 Olympic gold medal run in Salt Lake City, didn't get much of a tribute, either. In fact, he was jeered by the crowd. When an image of him holding the Stanley Cup was shown on the JumboTron as part of his introduction, boos filled every inch of the cavernous ACC.
Oh wait. Gary Bettman was also in that video snippet, handing the Cup off to Sakic after Colorado's 1996 sweep of Florida. It might have Indeed, a hockey crowd's response to Bettman's face is as Pavlovian as ever. It figured to be an interesting bet whether the NHL's commissioner might show his face at Monday night's induction ceremonies at the Hockey Hall of Fame, as is his yearly custom.
A sudden resumption of collective bargaining talks here would provide a convenient excuse for Bettman not to attend the induction ceremony, but as of Monday morning it was still unclear when the combatants would get back to the table.
The lockout has devolved into the most tiresome of stories, of course, but it's still the first thing on everyone's mind in the hockey world. Predictions of when it will end run the gamut, from "By next month, for sure" according to one plugged-in hockey team executive to "We won't have the NHL playing again until 2014-15" from another longtime team employee.
Donald Fehr's perpetually frumpy poker face sat juxtaposed in the Toronto papers with Bettman's, whose freeze-frame talking mug always seems to say "Get off my lawn!" It has all added up to a "Heckuva job, Brownie" weekend of shame for the game in trying to honor four of its best.
At least, the four recipients didn't seem to mind. Sakic, classy as ever, gave the ACC crowd one last great show, too. He proved that his legendary wrist shot hasn't hung up its tendons, whipping one past Curtis Joseph for one of his two goals for Team (Bryan) Trottier against Team (Doug) Gilmour.
"I didn't think I gave him any room on the shot. But I used to think that a lot after fishing the puck out of the net," Joseph said.
Sundin, the inscrutable Swede, didn't look too far out of playing shape, either. Still Scandinavian trim, No. 13 in blue gave the local hockey-starved fans reason to smile on a lazy Sunday.
"I will always consider Toronto to be like home for me," he said. "I spent 13 great years here, and the fans were always the best to me."
Bure, the enigmatic Russian (that's not a cliché, as he was just that), may not be a rocket anymore but his hands still rock it with a stick in them.
Oates, "The Playmaker", no-look-passed as much as ever during his shifts for Team Trottier. Oates's HOF induction easily qualifies as the most unlikely of this year's class. NHL teams thought so much of him as to leave him undrafted during his first year of eligibility while playing for RPI in the mid-80s. "Too slow", the scouts said.
Heckuva job, scoutsies. "Oatesie" went on to post 1,420 points in 1,337 games.
"Truth is, I was slow," he says now. "But I always felt pretty comfortable with the puck on my stick. And I got to play with some guys (Brett Hull, Cam Neely) who knew what to do with the puck if I got it to them. I was lucky. It's going to be a pretty emotional moment for me when I get to look some of the people Monday night who helped get me to this place. I had a lot of help."
CAZENEUVE: Who deserves a call from the Hall?
If Sunday's game was the only one that fans see at the ACC this season, they'll at least be able to say they were there. For the tens of thousands who should have seen a real game by now but haven't and may not for a good while, sadly muted echoes are what reverberate along Bay, Yonge and Front Streets.