I must admit that after the smoke rose from the chimney of the Hockey Hall of Fame where the conclave gathered Monday to choose the 2014 inductees, I was surprised at the amount of love that was being shown to Eric Lindros for not being among them.
This column will not debate the merits of Lindros as a Hall of Famer. I see him as a borderline candidate and would not have strong feelings one way or the other if/when he finds his way in. But far more fascinating were the machinations that revolved around the Lindros debate.
And almost none of them have anything to do with his performance on the ice. There are those who truly believe Lindros is being punished for his off-ice comportment over the course of his career – spurning the Soo Greyhounds in junior hockey and the Quebec Nordiques in 1991 and engineering a trade to the Philadelphia Flyers, having a mother and father (who later became his agent) having an enormous amount of influence during his career and generally being a player who didn’t sit down, shut up and play by the rules.
And they may have a point. When you look at a guy like Cam Neely, who is in the Hall of Fame, his career was remarkably similar to that of Lindros, save for one thing. Lindros was regarded by many as the most dominant player in the game for a two-year period, while Neely never held that distinction. Yet Neely, who was always a loyal Boston Bruin, is in the Hall of Fame and has risen to the lofty status of team president. Lindros, who at the very least was well ahead of his time in terms of players’ rights, is still seen as something of a pariah by the hockey establishment.
Which brings us to the point of debate. Shouldn’t Lindros be judged by what he did on the ice and only what he did on the ice? As the Hall of Fame drew nearer, there was speculation that Lindros might have a better chance than ever because former Flyers GM Bob Clarke is now on the selection committee and might advocate on his behalf. And having Luc Robitaille, who is essentially Rob Blake’s boss, on the committee probably didn’t hurt Blake’s cause, either.
And that’s where all of this breaks down. A person’s legacy of a player is tied exclusively to the whims of 18 men – yes, it’s always men – who are staunch members of the hockey establishment. Where I’m from, they call that an old boys’ network. And while the selection committee has done a far better job in recent years with its selections, opening that process would eliminate much of the subjectivity that surrounds the Hall of Fame selection process.
With the possible exception of basketball, there isn’t a hall of fame that is more secretive and closed in its selection process than hockey. Last year in baseball, a record 529 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America took part in Hall of Fame voting and not a single player was deemed worthy. Craig Biggio, who had 3,000 hits, came the closest with 388 votes, 39 shy of the 75 percent he needed. In football, voting is done by one media representative from each of the 32 markets, along with 14 other medial voters at large. In basketball, it’s a complex process that requires screening committees, then voting by a 12-member panel, along with another 12-member panel of rotating specialists.
To suggest that Lindros is being screwed over by the Hockey Hall of Fame is a bit of a stretch, but I am willing to bet that if voting were opened to a larger group of people with no career ties to the NHL, he’d probably be a Hall of Famer by now. At the very least, there would be a healthy debate about whether or not he deserves to be in based on what he accomplished on the ice. Part of the problem is we have no idea what the debate was surrounding Lindros or even if there was any because the selection committee is so secretive about its proceedings.
This would not require a lot of heavy lifting on the part of the Hockey Hall of Fame. But hockey people are a little strange that way. Just recently, we found that GMs don’t want to proceed with expanding video replay because, even though it’s indisputable that doing it increases multifold the probability of getting the call right, they’re still worried that it would be open to too much interpretation.
Old habits die hard and the Hockey Hall of Fame will be a tough nut to crack. Just look at how long it took to start inducting women. Change will come someday, but it’s going to take a long while.