Shortly after unveiling the newest members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, chairman Lanny McDonald called it “a phenomenal class.” When you have two guys who have waited a combined 45 years to get into the institution, you bet it’s phenomenal.
Welcome to the Confounding COVID Hall of Fame Class of 2020™, one that is all over the map and one that seemed to be intent on making up for previous omissions. How else do you explain Doug Wilson being elected in his 25th year of eligibility and Kevin Lowe in his 20th? It’s not as egregious as Rogie Vachon waiting 41 years to get the call, but it’s getting there.
Let’s start with the obvious. Jarome Iginla was a slam-dunk first ballot Hall of Famer. On that we can all agree. See how easy that was? Kim St-Pierre was pretty close to a shoo-in as well, even though she’s been eligible for two years. Ken Holland? Three Stanley Cups and a ton of regular season success. Easy choice.
Beyond that, though, there are the almost yearly head scratchers. Marian Hossa was a first-ballot Hall of Famer on the strength of being a second-team all-star once in his career. For all the talk about what a great two-way player he was, he was a Selke Trophy finalist once. Meanwhile, Rod Brind’Amour won two Selke Trophies and he’s not in. Neither are Theo Fleury, Alexander Mogilny or Tom Barrasso.
At the other end of the spectrum were the mystifying than the cases of Wilson and Lowe. It’s completely legitimate to debate their Hall of Fame credentials, which is something the hockey world has been doing for years. It’s not as though this snuck up on the selection committee. What was it about this year that made them worthy of induction over all the other years they had been snubbed? Either they should have been Hall of Famers in a reasonable amount of time or they aren’t Hall of Famers at all. Having them wait this long exposes one of the many flaws in the system that bestows the highest personal honor on NHL players.
Think about this for a second. The pool of voters for the Masterton Trophy this season will be in the hundreds. The pool of people who vote on who gets into the Hockey Hall of Fame is 18 and if 14 of them vote for a player, he or she gets in. There is no Hall of Fame in sports that leaves such a monumental decision to so few people and there is not a Hall of Fame that demands less of its voters than the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The problem with this is that every player’s legacy is at the hands of 18 people who meet for one day and cast a ballot. You could argue that there’s nothing more important in hockey that gets less time than Hall of Fame voting. The other problem is that nobody on that committee is allowed to discuss which players they voted in favor of or against. It essentially gives the selection committee a free pass with none of the responsibility of having to defend their choices. The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, which votes on the majority of the year-end awards, is not afforded the same privilege. And that’s because, as a group, the writers decided a couple of years ago that they wanted to be accountable and have its ballots made public.
Perhaps McDonald unwittingly expressed it best. When asked about the long waits for both Lowe and Wilson, he essentially acknowledged that it’s pretty much a crapshoot. “People have to understand that you not only have to get 14 of the 18 votes, or 75 percent of the votes, but it’s also sometimes who you’re up against when you’re nominated for that year,” McDonald said. “And I’m not saying whether they were ever nominated before or not. It’s just sometimes it’s timing.”
Of course, the only flaw in that logic is that sometimes there are as many as four players inducted on the men’s side per year and other years there are fewer. Since Wilson became first-time eligible in 1996, there have been a total of 32 open spots that have not been filled. There have been 22 since Lowe’s first year of eligibility. If it was just about timing and competition, Wilson would have been inducted as a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1996 and Lowe would have been on the first-ballot in 2001.
So it’s pretty clear that guys like Mogilny, Barrasso, Fleury, Brind’Amour and every other guy who’s biding his time before he gets in the Hall of Very Good just has to keep waiting. He might be 50 when he gets in, might be 75, might not even be alive to enjoy the accomplishment. Because when it comes to the Hall of Fame’s selection committee it actually doesn’t come down to timing. It comes down to whims of 18 people who have zero transparency or accountability.