The Hockey Hall of Fame and the Politics of Hockey Legacy: How and Why Are Certain Players Remembered?
July 5, 2012 5 Comments
Last week, the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF) announced the four men who would be the Hall’s 2012 inductees. The four, who will all enter in the Player category, are Joe Sakic, Pavel Bure, Mats Sundin, and Adam Oates. Surprisingly, despite prominent figures such as former coaches Pat Burns and Fred Shero remaining outside the Hall, no person was selected in the Builders category. Sadly and not surprisingly, given that the HHOF has seen fit to elect just two women since finally opening the honour to females in 2010, no women were selected.
The HHOF selection is process is always controversial and each year there are both surprising decisions and snubs to seemingly deserving people. A major criticism of the HHOF’s selection process is its opaqueness – decisions are made by the selection committee behind closed doors, and no information about the process is made available to the public. Furthermore, reflecting the socio-demographic characteristics of hockey culture, the committee is typically composed of white males, leading to questions about its commitment to diversity. Adam Proteau summed up many of these criticisms when he wrote, in 2008:
In an era where transparency is a valued and an often-demanded approach to virtually all aspects of society, the HHOF allows its most important decisions to be made by a group of middle-aged (to be kind) white dudes who aren’t required to make the thoughts and opinions that went into their decisions available to the public.
That’s just not right – and it’s definitely not the way other modern sports’ halls of fame operate. To be sure, there are some good people who are on the HHOF’s selection committee, people whose judgment and character are beyond reproach.
Nevertheless, so long as those people allow the Hall’s induction process to be held out of view of the general public – you know, the people they depend on to pay admission to the place – they do themselves and the men (and I do mean only the men) they induct a huge disservice.
Given its problematic and political nature, the HHOF induction process offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on the concept of legacy in hockey. In particular, it raises questions about who is remembered and why; about the political and social circumstances that impact the construction of hockey legacies; and about the way in which greatness in sport is selectively constructed by certain people at certain times. After the jump, I explore three issues in the construction of hockey legacies: the power of the media; the power differentials between the hockey establishment and players; and the lingering and ongoing impact of social inequalities.
The Media as Arbiters of Legacy
One important factor in a player’s legacy is the way in which he or she is treated in the media. I plan to write a separate post about former Vancouver Canuck Pavel Bure and the ways in which the Vancouver and Canadian media shaped how many fans remember him. But to give a taste of the role of the local Vancouver media played in shaping Bure’s career and legacy in Vancouver, I quote from an excellent post by Tom Benjamin about the way in which the media, and in particular Vancouver Province journalist Tony Gallagher, dealt with Bure:
I don’t think people who did not live through it can understand the media circus that surrounded Bure in Vancouver. Stories linking his name to Russian mafia murders? Check. Stories about his popularity in the gay community and whispers about his sexual orientation? Check. Linden and Bure were feuding? Check. Anything to put Bure on the front page and sell papers? Check. . . . Bure was very badly treated by the hockey media in Vancouver and that affected his reputation league wide.
As I mentioned, I intend to explore the question of Bure’s legacy in a separate post because there is so much more to unpack. However, the piece from Benjamin is an interesting commentary on the power of media to shape the perception of a player. Obviously the media cannot undo a player’s on-ice accomplishments—although deploying imprecise descriptions like “lazy,” “a locker room cancer,” “undisciplined,” etc. can certainly call them into question—yet it certainly can build a variety of narratives that compete with or overshadow a player’s hockey abilities. No one denied Bure’s ability, but manufacturing tabloid fodder that played on exotic notions of Russian mobsters or latent homophobia certainly helped to distract from his on-ice brilliance.
Obviously Bure ultimately overcame these perceptions to gain admission into the HHOF. I suspect that having Bure’s former Canucks coach, Pat Quinn, co-chair the 2012 selection committee may have helped finally tilt the scales in Bure’s favour. The inclusion of ex-teammate Igor Larionov on the committee also likely helped Bure’s case. But for many Canucks fans—myself included—it took some time to get over their anger with Bure. Some never have. And for those of who gathered much of their knowledge about the team from the Vancouver media, it is not hard to understand how his legacy was significantly tarnished for a long period of time.
There are other examples where the media has a significant impact on a player’s legacy. One recent example is the way the Edmonton media shifted its reportage of Oilers forward Ales Hemsky. From The Copper and Blue:
One of the finest yearly traditions in Northern Alberta is the turning of the fanbase. Each year management sours on a player, notifies the media of their sour disposition, and allows nature to take it’s [sic] course. The Edmonton media takes up it’s role as Oilers valet and begins to question the player’s drive, commitment, real estate purchases and dating choices. To hear the media tell the story, each of these players has been some combination of a locker room cancer, a lazy player, a malcontent, uncoachable, a greedy player. Naturally, the fans follow the lead of the media and turn on each player. . . .
The Edmonton media is questioning [Hemsky’s] production, his injuries, his commitment and his trade status. Compare that to Ryan Whitney’s treatment at the hands of the Edmonton media. . . . . The Edmonton media has been silent on his production, his injuries, his commitment and his trade status, and purposefully so.
Ryan Whitney gets preferential media treatment, while Ales Hemsky is left to run his fingers over the tire marks on his back.
Obviously Hemsky, though in the midst of a very good NHL career, is not in the same league as Bure in terms of his NHL superstardom and is very unlikely to ever be considered for the HHOF. Nonetheless, his reputation is seemingly being tarnished by the Edmonton media, and the narratives about his career being reshaped to call into question his character, his on-ice abilities, his commitment to the Oilers, and, ultimately, his hockey legacy.
The media are, despite the increasing power of alternatives blogger and fan voices, still extremely powerful arbiters of a hockey player’s legacy.
NHL Powerbrokers and the Punishment of Transgressive Players
Many people were shocked that Brendan Shanahan was not elected to the HHOF this year. After a 22 year career, Shanahan sits 25th in all-time points and 13th in goals. He won three Stanley Cups as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, was selected to the First All-Star Team twice, and even won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his off-ice humanitarian contributions. He also represented Canada at two Olympics, a Canada Cup, and a World Cup, winning the 1991 Canada Cup and a Gold Medal in the 2002 Olympics. Surely he has the CV to be a first ballot Hall of Famer?
Greg Wyshynski suggested that Shanahan’s off-ice conduct and current employment as the NHL’s Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations may have impacted his non-selection:
It begins, perhaps, with his behavior as a player — clashing with Mike Keenan in St. Louis, and then forcing a trade from the Hartford Whalers in 1996.
It continues in his current role as NHL senior VP of player safety. It could be argued that other than NHL commissioner, it’s the most divisive job in the League considering how controversial the rulings (and their rationale) are. Shanahan’s made slightly more enemies in the past year than Charlie Sheen. . . .
The Hall of Fame Selection Committee loathes misbehavior and ego. They’re the leading causes for placing a deserving player in purgatory until they’ve been properly shamed.
Pavel Bure experienced it. Ciccarelli did. Jeremy Roenick will. And it could be argued that Brendan Shanahan did this week, losing the undeniable honor of getting into the Hockey Hall Fame on the first ballot.
Those of us who feel we witnessed a career with more resonance than some already honored in the Hall, we’re left to wonder why this snub happened — and if petty politics and hurt feelings should carry any weight in deciding the value of a player’s contributions to the game.
I think that Wyshynski is on to something in pointing out that Shanahan’s current employment may be a factor in him not being selected to the Hall this year. After a preseason in which Shanahan cracked down hard on dangerous plays, sending a message by issuing a host of lengthy suspensions, some NHL owners reportedly complained to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Clearly Shanahan rubbed many members of the hockey community the wrong way with his bold approach to player safety and discipline.
Furthermore, the HHOF selection committee is very much an Old Boy’s club, something pointed out by Ken Campbell:
I think I’ve finally got this group figured out. It’s made up of 18 NHL-establishment white guys, not a single one of whom is under the age of 50. And the ones who carry the most weight among them are the same people who had to be dragged into the 21st century to allow women to be inducted. Just listen to them when they call the inductees, basically congratulating them for becoming one of their little insular group. They’re not going to be dictated to by anyone and it’s almost as though they thumb their nose at people by making these bizarre selections, just to remind everyone it’s their group.
Given the feeling in some circles that Shanahan went above his station in his early days as VP of Player Safety and the secrecy and insularity of the HHOF selection committee contributed to the snubbing of Shanahan? And might the presence on the HHOF selection committee of current members of NHL management – as well as Colin Campbell, Shanahan’s predecessor as NHL discipline czar – have tilted the scales against him?
If you think that powerful interests in the hockey community are above such petty reprimanding, the story of Ted Lindsay is instructive. Lindsay, along with all-star defenseman Doug Harvey, famously played a central role in organizing NHL players into a union to fight against the exploitative owners’ cartel that was the Original 6. As Joe Pelletier writes:
On February 12th, 1957 the NHLPA’s formation was announced, and almost immediately NHL owners looked to squash the movement. Each team began the successful disintegration of the player’s movement, and they went to whatever lengths were deemed necessary. Jack Adams, the Red Wings legendary boss, was particularly irate and intimidate[d] everyone of his players, and in most he was very successful. He unleashed a system campaign of lies and personal attacks on Lindsay, scaring most of the Red Wings players into backing away from certification votes. . . . For his union organizing activities, Detroit had little choice but to trade Lindsay to Chicago in 1957.
NHL owners at the time ran a nice little business in which they claimed to lose money on their “hobby” of running a hockey team, lowballed players in contract offers, and could work together to punish players who rocked the boat and threatened their nice little arrangement. For a much more detailed overview of the formation of the NHLPA and the attempts of owners such as James D. Norris and Conn Smythe to prevent NHL players from unionizing, I recommend reading the book Net Worth by David Cruise and Allison Griffiths. While Lindsay’s on-ice excellence meant that he did enter the HHOF in 1966, six years after his first retirement (he returned for one more season with the Red Wings in 1964), he suffered harassment and, ultimately, a shortened career as a result of his activities.
Over time, Lindsay’s legacy has grown in large part due to the very actions that the NHL owners attempted to punish him for. Players rightly revere him for his work on their behalf, and in 2010 the NHLPA renamed its trophy for best player to the Ted Linday Trophy in his honour. Shanahan, too, will maintain a legacy as an excellent hockey player and, depending on future events, as an NHL executive. He will no doubt enter the Hall one day, perhaps as soon as next year. But he will not do so as a first-ballot Hall of Famer – a minor knock on his legacy that, perhaps, stems from his attempts to make the NHL a less dangerous place for players.
The powers-that-be in hockey, while they cannot undo a player’s on-ice excellence, can certainly rap his or her knuckles for what they perceive to be off-ice indiscretions. And in doing so, they exercise a powerful (though, as the case of Lindsay demonstrates, not monopolistic) potential to help shape a player’s legacy.
The Lingering Impact of Social Inequalities
Finally, it is worth considering how the social circumstances under which a player played impacted his or her legacy – or his or her ability to build a legacy. This can be seen in hockey with regards to black, Aboriginal, and female hockey players.
I have written previously about Herb Carnegie and the politics of remembering. Carnegie was an excellent player who, despite seemingly being good enough to play the in the NHL, never made the top tier of hockey due in part to the fact that he was black. In my post, I reflected on Carnegie’s legacy in hockey:
Of course, also excluded from the Hall of Fame are players such as Carnegie who were never able to achieve NHL glory because of the political and social circumstances under which they played. As such, the politics of race lingers over Carnegie’s legend in numerous ways. . . . Having never received the opportunity to play in the NHL, Carnegie was therefore unable to fulfill the conditions necessary to become a hockey legend – at least a hockey legend as adjudged by the dominant benchmarks of NHL success and/or Hall of Fame induction. The spectre of hockey’s racially exclusionary history thus haunts contemporary processes of mythologizing the sport and its history.
Carnegie is not the only player to be ignored by the myth-makers at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Willie O’Ree did what Carnegie could not, and became the first black player to play in the NHL. O’Ree played just 45 games over two NHL seasons, but enjoyed a lengthy professional career in other leagues. Despite his minor on-ice impact as an NHL player, O’Ree has built a tremendous legacy based on his pioneering role in breaking the NHL’s colour barrier. As Steve Kendall wrote in 2010, there is a strong case to induct O’Ree to the HHOF on this merit:
More important that his statistics, however, is the impact he has had on the sport. Breaking the color barrier is no easy task, and O’Ree faced bigotry, racism, and slurs at every turn. . . . O’Ree has dedicated his life to hockey, endured to become an ambassador for the sport, and influenced thousands of young men and women to play the sport of hockey. For this, he deserves induction into Hockey’s Hall of Fame. It’s too late for this year, but let’s get the ball rolling and make O’Ree a member of the 2011 induction class.
With the caveat that I would want to see evidence to back the claim of inspiring thousands to play the game (it’s not improbable, but I like to see proof!), I completely agree with Kendall’s assertion that O’Ree deserves to be in the Hall – if not in the Player category then in the Builder category. Yet he remains shut out.
Like Carnegie and O’Ree, there are many Aboriginals who could have had amazing hockey careers if social inequalities did not prevent them from doing so. Despite a strong history of Aboriginal involvement in hockey, including players who overcame the systematic racism that prevented Aboriginals from participating in many early hockey leagues in Canada, there have been relatively few Aboriginal NHL stars over the years (although there certainly have been some notable players). It was not until 1953-54 that an Aboriginal player made it to the NHL.
Fred Sasakamoose, who was a victim of systematic racism and was sexually abused at a Residential School, played 11 games in the 1953-54 season for the Chicago Blackhawks. He ultimately left the NHL to live with his family, but continued to play competitive hockey for a few more seasons. While Sasakamoose has been honoured with a National Aboriginal Achievement Award and was an inaugural inductee into the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame (alongside NHL legends such as Gordie Howe and Glenn Hall), the significance of his accomplishment has not received much recognition within the broader hockey community.
To those who know his story, Sasakamoose is considered to have left an amazing legacy on the hockey world. But it in keeping with the broader marginalization of Canadian Aboriginals in contemporary Canadian society, to say nothing of the suppression of honest and open discussion of systematic racism in many public institutions, Sasakamoose’s story is largely unknown to many Canadians.
Finally, despite having played competitive hockey for as long as men, women remain nearly shut out of the Hockey Hall of Fame – and, through implication, have their achievements relegated to second class status. As noted in the New York Times, in 2010 the HHOF announced that it would finally change its standards to allow women to be inducted:
The Hockey Hall of Fame altered its rules this year to include a category for female players. It was possible for a woman to make the Hall of Fame, but it was difficult, because women do not have the same professional opportunities as men. . . . The Hall limits the number of annual inductees to five.
In 2010 the HHOF inducted two very deserving female candidates: Canadian Angela James and American Cammi Granato. However, since then women have been shut out. As the above quotation highlights, it is impossible to compare the statistical achievements of male and female players given that women enjoy so few competitive opportunities at an elite level. To be elected to the HHOF, a woman will have had to star for her country in the annual Women’s World Championships and, every four years, the Winter Olympics. Perhaps, if a women’s professional league is established and gains traction, female players will have greater opportunity to carve out a legacy. However, as it stands, women have very few opportunities to consistently participate at elite levels of hockey.
A further barrier to women’s long overdue recognition by the HHOF is the composition of the selection committee. As Jeff Klein pointed out on the New York Times hockey blog:
Why were no women voted into the Hall in Toronto the last two years? Perhaps because there are no women among the 18 voters on the selection committee.
As Bill Hay, chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame, pointed out during Tuesday’s announcement, the makeup of the selection committee is carefully balanced: there are six former players, six managers and six hockey journalists. Roughly half are themselves already members of the Hall.
There is no doubt that the selectors are a distinguished and learned group . . . but there is one inescapable fact about them — they are all men. . . .
No matter how well-meaning the voters are about recognizing the women’s game, the absence of a female voice among them almost certainly leads to the absence of an advocate when it comes time to speak up in favor of a woman inductee – or even to point out that there are no women inductees.
This relates back to the point made earlier about the HHOF selection committee being an Old Boy’s club – the emphasis, in this instance, being on boys. Klein continues:
When it comes time to fill a vacancy or two on the committee, it would probably behoove the Hall to add women who have played or written about hockey – women’s hockey — to the mix.
There are many women who are deserving of induction to the HHOF. Hayley Wickenheiser will surely be elected once she retires. But currently retired superstars such as Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Danielle Goyette, and Manon Rheaume deserve consideration. Furthermore, the HHOF should look back at the history of the sport to identify trailblazing women who deserve induction but were completely ignored by the hockey establishment at the time. For example, Joe Pelletier identifies Hilda Ranscombe as a key female player from the 1930s:
During the 1930s the Preston Rivulettes were the best womens [sic] team in the world, sporting a record of 348-2. Ranscombe was the team’s best player, and many considered her to be as good as the boys she played against in her youth, some of which went on to notable careers. Author Michael McKinley believes it was the Rivulettes that were the most prominent force in women’s hockey history, and Ranscombe was the biggest reason for their success.
Pelletier also points to the contributions to women’s hockey made by key figures such as Abby Hoffman and Hazel McCallion, the latter of whom he suggests could be inducted to the HHOF in the Builder category.
Women and racial minorities have long faced discrimination within North American society and within the culture of hockey. Despite this fact, many notable individuals excelled at, and made significant contributions to, the sport of hockey. Despite being deserving of widespread acknowledgement, many of these people remain at the margins of hockey greatness – some are well known, others are not, but none are ever placed in the pantheon of hockey greatness. Furthermore, as a result of the social conditions under which they played, countless more players were never afforded the opportunity to create a popular legacy for themselves.
Conclusion: The Social Construction of Legacies
Legacies are, ultimately, the result of collective choices about how we remember a person. These choices, however, are not made in a social vacuum – rather, they are contoured by social divisions, influenced by the media, and disproportionately impacted by those who are in positions of power in society. As the HHOF inductions remind us, hockey legacies are no exception. Legacies are constructed, contested, and contingent. And while legacies are powerful, there is always the possibility of remembering differently and of opening up alternative understandings of an individual’s contribution to hockey and to society.