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NHL Centennial

100 Greatest NHL Players share magical night

Phil Esposito, Billy Smith, Bobby Clarke grateful to be honored by League

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- Billy Smith was joking that he hadn't swung one of his famous goalie sticks in anger in quite some time.

Fellow legendary netminder Bernie Parent was raving to Hall of Fame forward Phil Esposito about his 45-foot yacht that he's branded "French Connection," and Esposito was discussing Italy with Parent's Italian wife, Gini, reviewing in ribald detail what you can expect from the population in that country's different regions.

Twenty or so NHL players for the ages were mingling, hugging, laughing and telling stories whose truth was more fantastic than any fiction, and it was instantly clear this was no ordinary Thursday evening high above a most extraordinary city.

Twenty-four hours from now, 67 of the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian would be unveiled at the Microsoft Theater, a 90-minute gala production featured as a centerpiece of the League's ongoing Centennial Celebration.

But on Thursday, with Los Angeles beginning to twinkle below, many of the icons who played predominantly from 1967 to the present day had gathered to renew their unique friendships.

It was late afternoon rush hour, a comical expression when you think about the City of Idling Angels, and 24 floors below, three merging freeways headed north were a solid, nearly unmoving thread of red lights.

The cars were crawling in the lengthening shadows, aimed in the direction of the iconic Hollywood sign visible on Mount Lee in the Santa Monica Mountains, nine giant capital letters reminding all that this is the home of movie-making magic.

The stars are countless in this urban sprawl, but nowhere was there quite a galaxy like that assembled at WP24, the lounge and restaurant of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck atop the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

NHL legends and Puck. Of course.

On New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in Toronto, as part of the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic, 33 players were celebrated as the greatest men who had played principally during the 50-year period from the League's birth in 1917 through 1966.

Now, during 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game Weekend, 67 more are being feted, those who starred -- six of them still doing it -- from 1967 until now. The cocktail party at WP24 for the group that dropped in with family and friends was a truly magical evening in the company of legends.

Among the first to arrive was Smith, the fiercely intense, clenched-fist backbone of the New York Islanders' 1980s dynasty.

Smith's 489 career penalty minutes in 680 games trail only Ron Hextall's 584 in 608 games among goaltenders, but "Battlin' Billy" would be picking no fights over cocktails.

"I've long believed that I was like Santa Claus; it's better to give than to receive," Smith said with a laugh of his famous style, countless crease-parking forwards having dined on his blocker or earned welts on their ankles from the axe he disguised as a stick.

"All water under the bridge," he said. "One of the guys I used to get all the time, Tiger Williams, every time we meet, we hang out all night together. We all did what we did to win, and now that it's over, we're friends.

"Hockey was a job [in which] I never had to grow up. Even when I played in the minors, I was a really happy guy. I didn't have a 9-to-5 job. It was a luxury just to have fun."

Like most members of this exclusive group, Smith said he was shocked to take NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's call to tell him he was on the 100 greatest players list.

"It totally surprised me," he said. "When you look at the other guys and figure they were better than what you were, well, I was very fortunate to have a great hockey team in front of me."

Bobby Clarke surely took a few whacks from Smith's lumber, but there are no grudges held. Not with Smith, not with anyone under whose skin the Philadelphia Flyers' icon played.

"It was totally unexpected," Clarke said of being one of the 100. "You don't have an idea that you should be one of the 100. I don't feel like I should be with some of these guys I'm seeing tonight, but I'm pretty happy about it."

From left to right: Chris Pronger, Bernie Parent, Bobby Clarke, Eric Lindros

Around the room were Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Luc Robitaille, Adam Oates, Grant Fuhr, Jacques Lemaire, Peter Stastny and Chris Pronger.

There was Marcel Dionne; it's a mystery how he can pack a personality so large into that economy-sized body. There was stately Frank Mahovlich, one of the first 33 named, and the elegant Jean Ratelle as well as skyscraping Larry Robinson, who still looks like he still could be a commanding presence on defense.

"I remember playing in the loft of the barn with my brothers and maybe a friend of mine, pretending I was Pierre Pilote or Bobby Hull," Robinson said. "Then lo and beyond, many years later, Bobby Hull was my roommate. You talk about being a kid in awe? This is amazing.

"This is like making a cake. You've put the icing on it and now they decorate it with something on top of that. It's one thing to make the Hall of Fame, but it's another to be named one of the top 100 in NHL history. How many hockey players have there been from the early years until now? When you look at the math, it's quite an honor."

From left to right: Luc Robitaille and Larry Robinson

Borje Salming, the great Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman, stood nearby, saying he was a huge admirer of Robinson moments after the latter, unheard to him, had said precisely the same thing of Salming.

"This is hard to understand," said Salming, reed-thin and glowing. "I came to the NHL from Sweden in 1973 and I never thought I'd play even a couple years. And now I'm here. To be one of the 100 is incredible, I'm so proud of that. To see all these guys I played against, it's fantastic."

Eric Lindros is still pinching himself about his past eight months, since last May having been enshrined by his hometown of Oshawa, home province of Ontario, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and now named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players.

"Everyone on the list is a bit different, too. It's not cookie-cutter," Lindros said. "I've been fortunate to hang around these guys from time to time. Luc [Robitaille] and I first met in 1991, we've been buddies ever since. I met Darryl [Sittler] at a Conquer Cancer road-hockey charity awhile back. Marcel [Dionne] comes to my Easter Seals event in Whitby [Ontario], Billy Smith, the same. It's a tremendous honor to be spoken of in the same breath as these men."

Swapping stories, leaning against a bar, were Esposito and Serge Savard.

"So many great memories. It's a shame we're getting so old we can't remember them unless someone sparks them," Esposito joked.

From left to right: Phil Esposito, Sergei Fedorov and Grant Fuhr

Savard had done a media roundtable earlier in the day with former teammates Robinson and Lemaire.

"Ask me about a joke and I can't remember the punch line," he said. "But when I talked with Larry and Jacques, all of these incredible things came back."

Esposito happily fumed about Savard's versatility, about how this 6-foot-3, 215-pound player who was told when he arrived with the Canadiens that he was too big to play center, as he'd been doing, often would kill Esposito's Boston Bruins with his penalty-killing as a forward.

Commissioner Bettman greeted every player who arrived. The naming of the 100 Greatest NHL Players has been an emotional experience, he said, for all involved, including the players still with us, and family members of those representing those who have been lost.

"Nobody was aware of the timing, or exactly aware of the process and the procedure of what we were doing," the Commissioner said. "When they were told about it, it was for a number of them overwhelming and it brought back thoughts on things that they hadn't focused on in years.

"What this means to the League is the recognition of the very people who represent the foundation of the game. It's a wonderful opportunity to honor them, and they honor us with their presence. Personally? This is just a lot of fun."

Three hours after the cocktail hour had begun, players had wandered out into the evening, heading off in small groups for dinner or just to absorb what would be among the most special weekends of their lives.

And there, at a corner table, still sat Smith, his sparkplug Islanders teammate Bryan Trottier, and Salming, the trio moving as quickly as three freeways below that remained a parking lot.

If there is one thing an NHL legend does just as well as he played the game, it's to sit with his contemporaries decades later and rewind the clock to their prime. There are no bitter battles, no opponents, no animosities. They are lodge brothers forever. Every jersey, no matter the team crest these men wore, is stitched with the NHL shield.

"Hockey is what you did, and nobody can take that away from you," Smith said. "It's something you have forever."

Then his broad grin lit up his bearded face.

"Or until we totally forget everything."

It was Clarke, considering his own NHL life and the lives of the men in this room, and those who skated through a century to this day, who put it best.

"For all of us who grew up wanting to play in the NHL," he said, "getting there is probably as close to heaven as we'll ever get."

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