Memory Lane – Hockey Hall of Fame Exemption Rule

The Hockey Hall of Fame is a cherished enshrinement that professional athletes who lead in their profession of hockey will quietly begin to pay attention to as their careers near the end.  Children playing road hockey in neighborhoods around the world are not playing for the Hall of Fame, they’re playing for that elusive Stanley Cup.  When they put that final score into the net over one of their friends that were coerced into playing goalie for the game, it’s the cup they’re hoisting – not preparing a speech for the Hall. But after the championships have been won and lost, the individual awards have been given out and all that a player has left is their legacy, focus shifts to what that looks like.  And in any players lasting legacy, nothing is more important than having your name and your career enshrined into the hockey Hall of Fame.

The conversation among pundits and fans is ongoing as we discuss the athletes who have been removed from our game for a few years.  This year’s conversation will look to Petr Forsberg, Dominik Hasek and Mike Modano as the newly eligible players.  Pat Burns remains in the conversation to see if the Hall of Fame will induct him posthumously.

But it wasn’t always so, the conversation did not wait three years for some.

Over the course of 52 years, the Hall of Fame made an exemption on ten occasions to open the doors to a career that was deemed worthy of immediate induction.  In order those exemptions were; Dit Clapper (1947), Maurice “Rocket” Richard (1961), Ted Lindsay (1966), Red Kelly (1969), Terry Sawchuck (1971), Jean Beliveau (1972), Gordie Howe (1972), Bobby Orr (1979), Mario Lemieux (1997) and Wayne Gretzky (1999).

After the induction of “The Great One” in 1999, it was announced that the exemption would no longer be used except in the case of special humanitarian circumstances.  None have been used in the fourteen years since Gretzy has been inducted.  Some notes from the 52 years when the exemption was active:

Longest Time Span Without an Exemption: 18 years. (Orr/Lemieux—’79-97)

Exemption was Most Used: over 11 years from 1961-1972, the exemption was used six of its ten times.

Multiple Exemptions: in 1972, the exemption was used on two athletes, the only time it was used more than once in a year. (Beliveau/Howe – 1972)

Teams with Multiple Exemptions –  Detroit Red Wings (3), Montreal Canadiens (2), Boston Bruins (2)

The exception process that lasted 52 years was designed to recognize an added layer of greatness among a class of athletes that are already deemed to be great.  However, after going unused for nearly two decades and with two of the all-time greats nearing the ends of their career in Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, the writing was on the wall.  And once 99 finally called it a career, the final exemption was used. And in the new generation of greatness from Sidney Crosby to Alexander Ovechkin, future sure fire first ballot Hall of Famers, they will wait their three years after retirement in order to have their ticket punched.

And it really is how it should be.

With a few years removed from the game, once a year we circle back to the best of the best from days past and look at what they accomplished.  Look at Dominik Hasek, now a few years removed from his career, the full scope of what he accomplished will be absorbed and with that comes some nostalgia for the athletes we once loved or despised, had since forgotten and are now tossed back to the top of the headlines as their careers are measured.

In sports, we look at the greatness before our eyes and often think, “yeah – but they’re not (blank)”.  As time passes, greatness hardens.  We try to compare the athletes or today with the athletes of yesterday and more often than not, the older guy gets the nod.  With the exemption rule no longer in effect, hockey has closed the doors to a class of hockey players that will forever be distinguished in a way that others will never be.

And has anyone complained since?


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photo credit: Grant MacDonald via photopin cc