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To Absent Friends...

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

‘Let us lift our glasses
And direct a toast
That they may abide in our hearts

- The toast ‘To Absent Friends.’

They are gone and yet never gone. Their legacy is a glimmer in the tears of the people who love them still.

The four men enshrined Tuesday in the Hockey Hal of Fame have earned their sport’s version of immortality. Likenesses of Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour and Mark Howe will be hung in the Great Hall. There you will find evidence of their deeds until the shinny glass doors close for good.

Each player’s story puts the lie to the notion of the self-made man. The four bear the memories of absent friends.

Howe’s defence partner for seven years, Brad McCrimmon, was killed in a September plane crash that wiped out the KHL team he coached. As Philadelphia Flyers, Howe and McCrimmon posted the best plus-minus composite of any defensive pairing since they started keeping the statistic.

“My father was the only other person I had that chemistry on the ice with,” said Mark.

Fifty-six years old, Howe understands that time gives and time takes. His mother Colleen died of dementia brought on by an affliction named Pick’s Disease in March 2009. The most hell-raising hockey mom ever was 76 and married to Gordie for 55 years.

“Maybe you lose them in the fact that they passed away,” said Mark. “My mother, I will never, ever lose my mother. People who know me know that’s what makes me tick.”

Nieuwendyk was told of his election in June while en route to the funeral of Harley Hotchkiss. Their friendship spanned years 25 years. The longtime Calgary Flames owner helped shepherd Nieuwendyk’s evolution from a college-trained rookie to NHL General Manager.

Hotchkiss, one of the NHL’s most vital owners, was 83 and died of cancer at home. It is impossible for Nieuwendyk to wholly separate the joy of being named a Hall of Famer from the grief of losing his friend.

“He had a huge impact on my career,” Nieuwendyk said. “He was unique in that he made a real family atmosphere in Calgary all those years. Entering pro hockey, I thought, ‘wow, this is like a true family.’ Harley was like that until the day he died. “

Gilmour planned to end his speech with a remembrance of Pat Burns, the intimidating ex-cop who guided the Leafs to final four appearances in 1993 and 1994.

For his final seven years, Burns’ body raged virulently against him through cancer of the colon, liver and lung. In the last weeks of his life, he eschewed treatment and let the world see him as a frail, dying man at the dedication for a Quebec arena that bears his name.

“Just one word. Warrior,” Gilmour said. “The guy lived for life. He respected people. You miss that relationship. Obviously hockey misses him too.”

Much of Belfour’s time with his greatest mentor, Vladislav Tretiak, ran through Anna Goruveyn, a brilliant Russian-born woman who acted as Tretiak’s agent and ran summer goalie schools for both men. She died in 2004 at 50. Cancer.

“She was a first-class lady,” Belfour said among all the glad-handing. “I was so glad I could be part of her life.”

From the other side of the ornate Great Hall, longtime Leaf coach and untitled philosopher Pat Quinn took in the scene.

A toast to absent friends is among the legion he has made. Quinn, a true hockey lifer, understands the trail of kindnesses -- many impossible to repay -- that go into a career.

“I think thanking them starts in your heart,” he said. “You have to believe there is some place where they know what you are doing and are proud of you. “

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