TORONTO - There is no one certain path to the pinnacle of a sport.
As Joe Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour, Doug Gilmour and Mark Howe took their place in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, they reflected on careers that looked nothing alike but ended up with them standing together on the sport's grandest stage.
"It's what makes it such a special place," said Nieuwendyk. "It doesn't discriminate. I think the common bond with a lot of these faces that I see on the walls, especially the recent ones that I have some history with, is a real genuine passion and a love for the game and high competitive spirit in all of us."
Nieuwendyk attended Cornell at a time when the NCAA route was far less travelled and went on to a NHL career that included three Stanley Cups with three different teams.
Belfour was considered eccentric—even for a goaltender—but managed to compile the third most victories in NHL history despite never being drafted.
Gilmour was passed over by just about everyone before being selected in the seventh round in 1982 and wound up playing almost 1,500 career NHL games with a heart-and-soul style that belied his modest size.
Howe grew up in the shadow of his legendary father Gordie and began his pro career as a winger in the World Hockey Association before later becoming one of the best defenceman in the NHL.
Pretty much the only thing that class had in common was the shared sense of pride the men felt about the honour. Standing on stage in the Hall's breathtaking main room on Monday morning, they each wore matching blazers featuring the Hockey Hall of Fame crest and surveyed the rings they were presented by chairman Bill Hay.
"I think every kid growing up who loves the game of hockey wants to be a player," said Howe. "You play in the driveway, you dream of winning Stanley Cups, you dream of winning Conn Smythe trophies, you dream of everything. The only thing you never dream of is making the Hall of Fame so this is beyond any dream that I've ever had."
Only 362 people have been honoured with a place in the Hall: 247 players, 100 builders and 15 referees/linesmen.
Belfour joined that exclusive company after a last minute shopping trip for a suit and tie. He raised some eyebrows when he showed up for a ceremony prior to Saturday's Leafs-Senators game in a leather jacket and partially unbuttoned shirt but was looking a little more dapper at Monday's induction after buying some new clothes.
"I still have some old suits, but they don't fit," said Belfour.
Nieuwendyk wasn't the least bit surprised to see his former teammate doing things his own way. Examples of that were ever-present throughout a career that included two Vezina Trophy wins and a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999.
"There was a lot of stuff that went with Eddie," said Nieuwendyk, now the general manager of the Stars. "It was the travelling skate sharpener especially for Eddie, it was the trainers going to get a special orange juice in the city that we were in for Eddie. All of these types of things that people can't even imagine existed, but they actually did.
"We lived with it and no one really blinked an eye at it because we knew he was going to be ready and stop the pucks for us."
Howe endured the longest wait among the inductees. He'd been passed over every year since 1998 before finally getting the call to join his father.
Gordie Howe attended the induction ceremony and said it was a bigger moment for him than when he entered back in 1972. On Monday morning, the elder Howe was surrounded by more reporters than his son.
"As you see, we're doing interviews and he has a much bigger crowd than I," said Mark. "The first day in the hotel 50 people came up and asked for autographs. They all asked for Gordie while (brother) Marty and I just sat there.
"That comes with the territory."
As a kid, Gilmour would make a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame each summer when it was still located on the CNE grounds. Even after becoming a junior scoring star and getting drafted by the St. Louis Blues, he never imagined in his wildest dreams that he'd one day see a plaque with his likeness on it alongside all of the game's greats.
"I'm five-10 and maybe a (155 pounds) at the time," said Gilmour. "(Blues coach) Jacques Demers said, 'Can you check?' I said, 'OK.' Because all I wanted to do was stay there. I didn't want to go to the minors.
"To say at that very point where I'd be today? No, I would have never expected that."
As it turns out, there are all kinds of different ways to make it happen.
Notes: Edmonton Sun columnist Terry Jones received the Elmer Ferguson Award for hockey journalism while Detroit Red Wings analyst Mickey Redmond accepted the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster ... Wayne Gretzky passed along a long note for Jones that was read during the media luncheon. It concluded: "An honour well deserved, congratulations on being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame! Welcome, it's a wonderful place to hang your hat."