Adam Oates didn’t blink when he was asked the question.
If you could assemble the best parts of all of this year’s members of the Hall of Fame class, what would you take from a group made up of Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Pavel Bure and himself?
“Pavel’s speed, for sure,” Oates said. “Joe’s ability to shoot the puck. Me, passing. And Mats was the all-purpose guy, the big, strong guy that could do it all.”
Combined, the quartet would have been likely the most dominant player out there.
As it was, they were pretty well remarkable using their own particular talents and well worthy of hockey’s highest honour.
On Monday night, the group was inducted into the Hall in much the same way they played: quietly, with class and without much fanfare, making the best of a tough situation with the NHL in yet another lockout.
But from the mid- to late 1980s to three years ago, when Sakic and Sundin, the long-time captains of the Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs, retired, the four helped define a generation that ran the extremes of when 100-point seasons were plentiful to the Dead Puck Era entering the 2004-05 lockout.
The group still has to be joined by a few more contemporaries – from Teemu Selanne to Mark Recchi and Brendan Shanahan – but they are still part of the last of a group, marking the end of an era when 1,300-plus-point careers like those of Sakic, Oates and Sundin were far easier to reach.
No one involved expects that to remain the standard for long.
“I think it would be impossible to be like that again,” Oates said, now coach of the Washington Capitals. “Every year, the league gets better in my opinion. The talent we see every single night it’s fantastic. The coaching’s better, the goaltending’s better, and people have to start appreciating the talent that’s on the ice, similar to soccer in a sense. There’s not a lot of goals; you’ve got to appreciate the talent.”
Some believe the period these four played in was a better, simpler one.
“You don’t put a cap on lightning,” was how Pat Quinn, who coached three of the Hall of Famers, put it when asked about coaching a young Pavel Bure in Vancouver. “You let it go.
“That was my theory with him and most players that have exceptional talent. Too many of our coaches try and create a herd where we’ll all be the same. That’s not what this game is about. I want to see their talent. The three players that I had here, they were all like that.”
Monday’s ceremony was full of poignant moments, with the most memorable likely when Oates nearly broke down while thanking his family, including father David, who taught his son to play like soccer great Stanley Matthews and pass the puck at every opportunity, and new wife, Donna.
“I wish we met earlier,” Oates joked to his wife, “so you’d see I was a better player.”
Bure’s speech touched on his memories of taking the subway to his first hockey games in Moscow as a six-year-old with his mother, Tatiana, who was sitting in the front row at the ceremony as her son’s eyes welled up with tears.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Bure said, addressing his fans.
The players’ four speeches were all fairly understated – fitting given Sakic had used that term early in the day to describe himself and his fellow inductees.
There was little ego when they played and even less so now, as they stood in their black blazers, pushed through their speeches and tried to thank everyone who had touched their careers in a handful of minutes.
“I think the majority of us come from simple means,” Oates said, another aspect of his era that could be slipping away as costs skyrocket at the grassroots level. “Just the way we were raised. I want to say most hockey players are classy guys and just a little bit humbled.”
Monday was taking that, multiplying it by four and putting it into a situation like the Hall of Fame whirlwind.
It was, at times, overwhelming.
So the tail end of an era – when goals were more plentiful, coaches let them play and at least these four key personalities were so inconspicuous despite their stardom on the ice – came in the way it played out through four terrific careers.
“It’s really tough to take in to be honest with you,” Sundin said of his Hall of Fame experience. “I’m very humbled by the whole weekend.”