CHICAGO – It was a day for memories and a lot of good ones were shared.
Of course, that's just to be expected whenever you celebrate the career achievements of people who've dedicated the bulk of their lives to a passion for hockey – whether it was playing, calling games or trying to keep the sport strong as an owner.
On Monday night at the Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame officially welcomed its 2011 class -- which included players Chris Chelios, Gary Suter and Keith Tkachuk, along with legendary television announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick and enterprising Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider.
They each had a chance to congregate, chat about their careers with the media, give speeches and just generally enjoy a night in their honor. Earlier in the day, they all posed with the plaques that will commemorate what they've each done in the sport.
And to think that one of those "fond" memories included the time in the old Chicago Stadium when one of the inductees (Chelios) nearly choked out one of the others (Tkachuk) with a vice-like headlock during a post-whistle scrum – respectfully, of course.
"I couldn't breathe," Tkachuk recalled, with a laugh. "I thought I was going to croak there. I was down to my last breath. He was strong for a little guy."
Strong enough that Chelios made sure not to take it too far. After all, the two were teammates for Team USA during a number of international tournaments – including the Winter Olympics, Canada Cups and World Cup of Hockey showdowns.
"He jumped in the scrum late and I got him," the smiling Chelios said of Tkachuk. "I saw his face turning colors and I let him go right at the last second. I could have made him pass out easy, though."
Chelios' boyhood hero while growing up on the south side of Chicago was the nasty Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, who was known crossing the line in games.
"He didn't hit like Dick Butkus," Tkachuk quipped. "But he'd sure choke ya."
All "choking" aside, Tkachuk had nothing but praise for Chelios -- and it was the same the other way around.
And they both made sure to mention Suter's impressive career -- which included stints in Calgary, Chicago and San Jose. Suter's arrival in the Windy City, however, was yet another fun memory shared. After being traded while the Flames were in Hartford, he flew to Chicago and was met at the airport by a former Blackhawks employee -- who drove him to a hotel in a 1970 Pontiac with large exhaust pipes.
"The thing was smoking down the highway," said Suter, one of the most accomplished players in his era despite shying from the limelight. "It was like John Candy's car in whatever movie that was, backfiring and everything. That's my first memory of coming to Chicago."
Suter also helped close the old Chicago Stadium and open the United Center along with Chelios -- also playing with Chelios and Tkachuk in many international games wearing the American red, white and blue.
There to call many of those games from the TV booth was Emrick -- who grew up in a small town in Indiana listening to Fort Wayne Komets games in the old International Hockey League – where Emrick later worked calling games for the Port Huron Flags in Michigan.
After working his way up the ranks like a player does, Emrick eventually made it to the NHL – where his broadcasting career took him to new heights. He had stints with the Flyers, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils and gained national prominence by doing hockey games for all of the major networks -- including his current spot doing games on VERSUS and for NBC’s Game of the Week.
On Monday afternoon, Emrick was reminded of something his parents – both educators – once told him: find a real job. Emrick smiled wide before answering.
"They've both passed in the last decade, but were they here tonight they might have nodded and said, 'Yeah, I guess that was a job,'" he said. "They were both educators and the rhythm of a school year is similar to hockey, but school years are pretty consistent. Teachers get renewed and they just come back the next fall and the next fall and the next fall. In hockey, sometimes it's not that way."
It's been that way for "Doc" for quite a while now, but not quite as long as it's been for Snider -- who has taken the Flyers from an expansion franchise in 1966-67 into one of the League's most recognizable brands today.
"You're talking about someone who has been 45 years operating a franchise," Emrick said. "There's not that kind of longevity anymore."
In fact, this is Snider's eighth Hall of Fame that he's been inducted into – including the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, Washington D.C. Sports Hall of Fame, Philadelphia Hall of Fame, Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Flyers Hall of Fame.
His efforts to promote youth hockey in the Delaware Valley region are well known, as is the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation that was founded in 2005 to provide inner-city boys and girls a chance to learn how to skate and play the game.
"They've both passed in the last decade, but were they here tonight they might have nodded and said, 'Yeah, I guess that was a job.' They were both educators and the rhythm of a school year is similar to hockey, but school years are pretty consistent. Teachers get renewed and they just come back the next fall and the next fall and the next fall. In hockey, sometimes it's not that way." -- Mike 'Doc' Emrick on his parents telling him to 'find a real job.'
That foundation actually rescued five city rinks in Philadelphia from being closed, gave them a makeover and made them operational year round – something that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman noted in his speech on Monday night.
"The re-opening of these facilities represents the re-opening of a pathway to opportunity for the young people in those communities who might not have another pathway," Bettman said. "No matter how far the youngsters progress from an athletic standpoint, these rinks will be home to success stories and achievements on a daily basis."
In finishing that thought, Bettman summed up the biggest reason why all five members of this class will forever be remembered in U.S. hockey history.
"Hockey at the grassroots level helps develop enduring commitment, character, discipline, teamwork and all of the things that are so good about our game," he said. "These are the attributes that are in abundance here tonight by the people being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame."