TORONTO — Steve Yzerman probably should have entered the Hockey Hall of Fame long before now.
The former Detroit Red Wings captain didn’t mind waiting out the mandatory three-year period before Monday’s induction ceremony, he just thinks the clock should have started ticking a little sooner.
Like the other three players that comprise the Hall’s newest class, Yzerman decided to return to the ice for the season following the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Unlike the others, he wishes he hadn’t.
“I really debated should I come back, is this the right thing or not?” Yzerman recalled Monday morning. “Looking back on the thing, I wouldn’t have done it. If I had the opportunity (to do it again), I wouldn’t have come back and played.”
That means he could have been part of another strong induction group instead — the class of 2007.
In addition to having remarkable careers and their name on the Stanley Cup, one thing this year’s Hall of Fame inductees have in common is the fact they all endured the league’s latest labour dispute. Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Luc Robitaille went through it as players while builder Lou Lamoriello was on the other side as an executive with the New Jersey Devils.
They each look back on the lost season in quite different ways. Interestingly, Yzerman originally thought it might be a blessing in disguise for him as he was attempting to recover from serious knee surgery.
“I was hoping actually the year off was going to help me,” he said. “I was hoping that if I trained I could come back stronger and play. It really didn’t make much of a difference at all. It didn’t make any difference. …
“At least when I retired, I knew I was done.”
A special guest travelled to Toronto to celebrate along with the latest inductees on Monday night. Wayne Gretzky, who has kept a low profile in recent months, was in attendance to see his friends honoured.
There are probably a few hockey fans out there who have forgotten that Hull’s career ended in the desert after a brief stint playing under Gretzky.
He signed with the Phoenix Coyotes after the lockout ended, but only appeared in five games before stepping aside. The NHL pace was suddenly too fast for a 41-year-old that hadn’t played a meaningful game in a year and a half.
Without the layoff, Hull believes he would have stuck around the league longer.
“Absolutely, no question,” he said. “I know that for a fact.”
The hardest thing for Leetch to make peace with is the lingering idea that the lockout cost him a chance at another Stanley Cup.
While he is best remembered for his dominant days with the New York Rangers, the smooth-skating defenceman had been dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs towards the end of the 2003-04 season. Leetch remembers looking around that dressing room and thinking they would be a contender the next year.
“I had one year left on my contract with Toronto,” he said. “I thought we had a good team, I thought we had a chance to make a run at it again. I had won in New York after 54 years and I said, ‘Wow, imagine being able to win in Toronto and New York?’ So I had always had that in the back of my head. …
“I certainly look back and say‘what if’ a lot about that year.”
Not surprisingly, Robitaille simply seems happy for the time he had in the NHL.
The ninth-round pick overcame the longest odds of the group just to play a game in the league and thinks the only thing the lockout cost him was the chance for some statistical symmetry.
“I don’t think it would have extended my career (if the lockout hadn’t happened),” said Robitaille. “Just I would have played 20 years instead of 19. Twenty for No. 20.”
The season following the lockout ended up being a time of great change for the NHL.
Rule changes saw the game speed up and young players like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin made an immediate impression as rookies. Eventually almost every team came to rely more on younger guys than they had in the past, displacing several veterans in the process.
“What happened was that we saw more younger players surface because we actually combined two classes of young players,” said Lamoriello, the NHL’s longest-serving general manager. “You had players who had a year more experience where they should, whether it be in junior or in the minors. … I think we had better younger players (as a result).”
One thing the newest Hall of Famers seem to agree on is that the lockout needed to happen. It was a regrettable time for the sport, but a battle was brewing.
“There’s sacrifices you make as a group and that was one as the players we felt had to be done,” said Hull.
Yzerman tried to look at the big picture and hoped for a deal that would continue to benefit all the players coming after him.
In this case, it meant not immediately agreeing to accept a salary cap — something the players ultimately chose to do to help bring an end to the lockout.
“I was at the end of my career and I had reaped the benefits of a pretty successful system … for a number of years,” said Yzerman. “Players like myself who’d played a long time weren’t about to say, ‘Now, I think a salary cap will be OK.’ It would be like throwing the rest of the players under the bus.
“I think in some ways it was kind of inevitable. We knew it was coming and had to accept that.”
It was harder to accept that the time had come for him to end his playing career.
Yzerman added modestly to his final NHL totals during the 2005-06 post-lockout season, scoring 34 points — the lowest output of his Hall of Fame career. Like many athletes, he found it difficult to say goodbye.
“Mentally, I really enjoyed playing,” said Yzerman. “I loved being a player, being around it. But it wasn’t right to keep going and to take a spot on a team that was trying to win the Stanley Cup.”