Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Who Is That Russian Guy?

The six inductees in the Class of 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame ceremony have been revealed, and there were a few surprises. In the Players category, it's hard to argue the merit of Martin Brodeur or Martin St. Louis as they've been two of this generation's best players. Jayna Hefford will be honoured as an inductee after her incredible career as part of the women's game. Alexander Yakushev will be honoured for his international hockey career, and it's one that is far more interesting than one would think. In the Builders category, Willie O'Ree is finally getting his induction as the man who broke the colour barrier in the NHL. And the sixth and final inductee is current NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Let's get into this.

There isn't much that one can say about Martin Brodeur that hasn't already been published. Three Stanley Cups, four Vezina trophies, five Jennings trophies, two Olympic gold medals, two World Championship silver medals, a 2004 World Cup of Hockey gold medal, the cover player on NHL '14, and he holds the NHL's all-time career win total at 691. Pretty sure he was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame the moment he announced his retirement.

Martin St. Louis is another player who really needs no introduction. The undrafted NCAA forward played in 1134 NHL games, scoring 1033 points. He won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, two Art Ross Trophies including the 2012-13 Art Ross Trophy at the age of 37 to make him the oldest winner of the trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award in 2004, and Hart Memorial Trophy in 2004, a 2004 World Cup of Hockey gold medal, an Olympic gold medalist in 2014, and two silver medals at the IIHF World Championships. Again, this resumé screams Hall of Fame, and Marty St. Louis will be headed there.

Jayna Hefford's inclusion should be the start of a long line of amazing women's player heading into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hefford helped Canada win four-straight Olympic gold medals and one silver medal in 1998, and she will be remembered for scoring the game-winning goal in the gold medal game in the 2002 Winter Olympics. She holds seven gold medals from the IIHF Women's World Championships and another five silver medals. She helped Canada win the gold medal at the 2010 Women's Four Nations Cup. Hefford helped the Brampton Thunder win the first CWHL championship in 2007-08, was named the CWHL MVP in 2008-09, and scored a league-record 44 goals and 69 points in the '08-09 season. In total, she scored 439 goals in 418 games in the COWHL, original NWHL, and CWHL. Hefford's inclusion in the Hockey Hall of Fame should never have been debated.

Willie O'Ree changed hockey forever when he suited up with the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens to become the NHL's first black player. In a rather amazing twist, O'Ree kept an eye injury secret that caused him to be 95% blind in his right eye from the Bruins, allowing him to break the colour barrier in professional hockey. O'Ree has been an inspiration to many kids of African-American heritage who have made it to the NHL including Joel Ward, Madison Bowey, and Wayne Simmonds. O'Ree's career was only 45 games long, but his determination and hard work that got him to the NHL will eternally be recognized with his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Gary Bettman will always be a polarizing choice, but there's no denying that he's made the league stronger, bigger than its ever been in the United States, expanded and moved teams to centers that have resulted in great league strength, and made it into a billion-dollar sports league. Yes, there's a lot that people will point to when it comes to negatives about Bettman, but there is no denying that hockey is better financially and certainly more prominent in everyday life in many non-traditional communities thanks to the vision of Gary Bettman.

So who is this Alexander Yakushev guy? Yakushev was an atypical Russian hockey player during his era in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While most players were smaller and speedy, Yakushev was a towering 6'4" scoring machine who owned the slot, but skated as well as his smaller teammates. He is often compared to Phil Esposito for his style of play, and he certainly made an impact in the 1972 Summit Series where he scored seven goals and four assists in the eight games to lead the Soviet team in scoring.

Yakushev won a a pair of Olympic gold medals in 1972 and 1976 while playing for the Soviet Union, added seven gold medals, two silver medals, and a bronze medal from the IIHF World Championships, and was named to the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2002. He was a goal-scoring machine in the Soviet Championship League with Spartak Moscow before ending his career with Austria's Kapfenberger SV.

Yakushev moved into the coaching realm once his playing days were over, starting as an assistant coach of Spartak Moscow before taking over the head coaching position in 1989-90. He would hold that position until 1993 before taking the head coach position with Austria's EK Zell am See in 1993-94, and he would jump to the Swiss League's HC Ambrì-Piotta where he was the head coach from 1994 until he was relieved of his duties on November 5, 1996. Yakushev would return to Spartak Moscow in 1997, but he also assumed the head coach duties for the Russian National Team for the next two seasons. Since then, he's dabbled in coaching and in team management in Russia, but the 71 year-old will finally be honoured for a career about which very few hockey fans know.

Your six inductees will see their new plaques added to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, November 12th, 2018. I'm extremely pleased to see Willie O'Ree and Jayna Hefford added to the Hall's esteemed players and builders, and it's always nice to see a player whose career was hidden behind the curtain of Communist Russia be honoured as well. I think the Hockey Hall of Fame's Selection Committee did a pretty good job with their selections this season!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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