Should there be more international hockey players in the Hall of Fame?
The headline needs to be answered immediately. And the answer needs to be a resounding yes. And there was no greater opportunity to do so than in 2002.
Some of the greatest hockey players never played in the National Hockey League. Some of hockey's earliest stars, many of whom are included in the Hockey Hall of Fame, played in the years before there was even a NHL. But even since the formation of the NHL in 1917 several of the world's top players never played in the top league in the world - and that seems to have crippled any chance of theirs to be included in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Hockey Hall of Fame, located in downtown Toronto, Canada, is essentially the National Hockey League's Hall of Fame. They run it and largely fund it. And as a result it is largely a NHL show.
That's all fine and dandy. But they should make it more clear that it is not truly the Hockey Hall of Fame but rather the NHL Hall of Fame, much like the International Ice Hockey Federation has their own Hall of Fame for international stars, not club team stars. That way there can be no debate about international stars - they didn't play in the NHL, so they can't get into the NHL Hall of Fame, just like a NHL player - for example Rocket Richard - can't be in the IIHF Hall of Fame unless he competed in some international events.
But the Hockey Hall of Fame is not advertised as the NHL Hall of Fame, even if it seemingly is run like it. There have been a couple of rare exceptions in modern times. The "Father of Soviet Hockey," Anatoli Tarasov, and standout goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak have both been included in the NHL's Hockey Hall of Fame.
And rightfully they should. Tarasov is the architect of the greatest national hockey program in the world. He was the architect of perhaps the greatest teams in history, and developed many of the greatest stars. Tretiak was the backbone of so many great teams. He more than any other player was identified as Canada's chief nemesis even though Canadian fans secretly cheered for his success.
There is no doubt that these two should not be included. But why aren't there other international stars, in particular Soviet stars? By rightfully opening the doors to these two the Hockey Hall of Fame has set a grand precedent. But it needs to pick up the campaign that seems to have been ditched.
Other international hockey stars that belong among the game's greatest in a true Hockey Hall of Fame are:
And you can certainly make very good cases for so many other players. There could be another dozen Russian players who deserve at least a nomination, and nations such as Sweden, Finland and Germany each have a Non-NHL player or two who could be nominated. Even American and Canadian international stars such as Mike Eruzione and Seth Martin could be nominated. And dare I mention the most controversial of all nominees - Paul Henderson.
In fact in the last couple of years the NHL has had no better opportunity to correct these omissions and include at least a couple of the obvious Soviet stars.
In 2001, the NHL made a promising step forward when they rightfully honored Russian defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov. Fetisov was a star of the 1980s powerhouse Russian national teams who would later be freed from communist rule and be allowed to enjoy a solid career in the National Hockey League. But he was not included because of his NHL play. In the NHL he was a solid but aging veteran who certainly did not look out of place, but never dominated like he did in his youth. He was included because of what a great player he was on the international scene.
Also included in 2001 were Dale Hawerchuk, Jari Kurri and Mike Gartner - three of the greatest NHLers ever to grace the game. As it is uncommon to see more than 4 inductees in any year, the NHL can be forgiven for not taking the opportunity to include past international stars along with Fetisov.
But in 2002, the Hockey Hall of Fame could have made the big leap. There was no more perfect opportunity. Aside from Rod Langway, there was no obvious must include players - lots of very good players. Sergei Makarov probably should have joined Langway in the obvious category, but his lack of NHL success probably hindered him. The star right winger of the 1980s Russian team was nearly as important as Fetisov was, and based on his international play there should be little doubt he was one of the all time greats. He too join the NHL late in his career. But his NHL career was short in comparison to Fetisov and his shoo-in Hall of Famer former centerman Igor Larionov. As a result, he didn't get in his first year of eligibility.
Instead the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted two surprises - Clark Gillies and Bernie Federko. Both were very good players, but never quite superstar level players. Probably the biggest complaint about the Hockey Hall of Fame is it includes many very good players with the absolute best when many people believe it should be reserved strictly for the absolute best. On one hand the Hockey Hall of Fame seemed to be making a positive statement at limiting inclusion to very good players like Bernie Nicholls and Dino Ciccarelli, but then gave invitations to equally as good Gillies and Federko
Don't get me wrong. I loved Gillies and Federko, but they weren't at the same level as a Gretzky or Bossy or Lafleur. What I think the Hockey Hall of Fame should have done was included Makarov along with Langway, and used the extra induction or two to grant inclusions to two top international stars of the past. By inducting Tretiak, Tarasov, Fetisov and undoubtedly Larionov when he becomes eligible, it is ignorant of the NHL to not include a Kharlamov or Mikhailov.
So why hasn't the NHL included these players? Presumably the selection committee isn't impressed by international hockey of the pre-1990s. World Championship titles and Olympic gold medals traditionally haven't meant very much to Canadians. Canada's top players weren't competing, so maybe international accomplishments aren't considered nearly as highly as they should be. And let's face it, pre-1972 Soviet stars and non NHL Europeans are unheard of names in North America. Most of them never had a chance to prove they were every bit as good as NHL professionals like many of the Russian players did in 1972 and throughout the 1980s.
Ultimately I guess they figure these players did not prove themselves against the best in the world for a long enough period of time. Obviously they felt that Tretiak and Fetisov did, yet, rightly or wrongly, they feel the sampling of action against top NHL professionals among the others was too brief to meet their requirements.
Maybe one day these players will get in. With Europeans so prominent in the NHL these days, we'll see more and more European NHL stars in the Hockey Hall of Fame over the following decades. At one point and time there was a "veteran's committee" at the Hockey Hall of Fame that looked to include old time hockey players who were overlooked. Maybe someday there will be an "international committee" to rightfully induct these players.