There was a man. A certain man. A man whose moustache and puffy face was known across the land. You know his name. It was Pat Burns. It was Mr. Burns.
This week, the Hockey Hall of Fame announced plans to induct four men. None of whom was Burns, whose illustrious 14-season career as an NHL coach was preceded by a career as a cop in Gatineau, Quebec (which, as career transitions go, is as improbable as Barack Obama having cut his teeth by being D.L. Hughley for a few years); who was the NHL coach of the year three times; and who was (most likely anyways) wearing his Stanley Cup ring, earned in 2003 as coach of the New Jersey Devils, when he was laid to rest in late 2010 after a years-long back-and-forth fight with cancer. The snub isn’t the worst thing that has happened to Burns’s legacy since his death—some munch broke into his widow’s car not long after the funeral and stole a grip of autographed jerseys set aside for charity auctions benefiting cancer research—but it’s pretty bad.
Unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, whose player members (notwithstanding the veteran’s committee guys) are inducted by way of hundreds of ballots cast by the media, the Hockey HOF entrusts the election of all its members—from players and referees to coaches and owners, and the like—to an 18-person selection committee composed of ex-players, ex-coaches, ex- and current executives, broadcasters, and what have you. Under such a regime, a few old dogs with axes to grind could hold enough sway to freeze out of a consensus legend like Burns. I’m not suggesting this happened, just that it’s possible; and the possibility rankles.
Rankles like a bitch. Bob McKenzie, the best-connected, most acute, most likable, and most admired hockey journalist on the planet, called the selection-committee system “a very odd dynamic,” advising naysayers to “gather your own group, follow HHOF voting guidelines/rules and see what results you get.” He was being polite, possibly because he’s Canadian. I could say much, much worse things about the dictatorship of the committee.
The worst part is that, though I generally don’t cross the street for the sake of HOF inductions, I was, in this instance, robbed of a chance to care about it. Among this year’s class is Pavel Bure, my favorite player during the endlessly ruminated-upon ten-to-15-years-old stretch of life, during the first half of the 90s. Adam Oates, Mats Sundin, and Joe Sakic got in too. Those guys getting in, great as they were—Oates has been called the smartest hockey player of his generation; Sundin was the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs when they were very good and very underrated; Sakic was maybe the best center to play circa 1980-2000 who wasn’t named Gretzky or Lemieux, and he’s the subject of the best-ever Bob Cole call, (which is reason enough to get in)—didn’t move me.
Good players get in every year; learning of this is like learning that a politician you once believed in has had sex with a woman, or that your favorite packaged food contains poison—it’s just another of the news cycle’s banal inevitabilities. But your favorite player gets in but once. I should have spent the day watching this Bure rush, still the greatest coast-to-coast job I’ve ever seen, and playing NHL 94 on emulator at work. But instead I’m writing a pissy screed at my kitchen table at four in the morning, because a HOF without Burns doesn’t deserve to have the words “fame,” “hall,” or “of” attached to it.
Thank you very much, pink faces of the selection committee. I had one chance to enjoy a boring thing, and you wrecked it.