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Hockey Hall of Fame Class of '72 one for the ages

Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe topped star-studded group of inductees on Aug. 24, 1972

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

It says a great deal about the selflessness of Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau that neither of the late NHL icons wrote a word about his Hockey Hall of Fame induction in his autobiography.

It was on Aug. 24, 1972, in the year after they retired, that Howe, most famously of the Detroit Red Wings, and Beliveau, a lifelong member of the Montreal Canadiens, were enshrined; the Hall's selection committee opted to waive the traditional three-year waiting period to consider their iron-clad candidacies.

The fierce rivals and fast friends were the most radiant stars in one of the greatest Hall of Fame classes ever, joined by larger-than-life Canadiens forward Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion. Entering the Hall with the three players were builder Weston Adams Sr., a pioneer with the Boston Bruins, and two early-era players, each posthumously: goaltender Harry "Hap" Holmes and right wing Reginald "Hooley" Smith.

Toronto was overflowing with hockey luminaries that August night, with Team Canada at training camp for its upcoming eight-game Summit Series against the Soviet Union.

Conspicuous by his absence was Beliveau, but with good reason. Eighteen months earlier, as his career entered its final weeks, Beliveau was honored by the Canadiens at the Forum and was given tickets to the 1972 Munich Olympics. So it was that Beliveau and his wife, Elise, were in Germany when the Hall of Fame inducted this illustrious class.

Beliveau had announced his retirement as a player on June 9, 1971, two months before his 40th birthday; he moved immediately into the Canadiens' executive suites after having won the Stanley Cup 10 times as the pre-eminent center of his era. In his role as a vice president, he would be part of seven more championship teams.

"It was a difficult decision to reach," Beliveau told a packed news conference in a Montreal hotel ballroom. "Hockey has been my life since the day my father gave me a pair of skates when I was five years old. I still love the action on the ice and I had hundreds of letters from fans and friends urging me to play one more season. And hard, too, because of requests from some of my teammates. But at age 40, I have to get closer to my family."

Howe hung up his skates, for the first time, on Sept. 8, 1971. The four-time Stanley Cup winner was not much pleased by the writing on the wall with the struggling Red Wings.

In his 2014 autobiography "Mr. Hockey: My Story," Howe recalled having advised Guy Lafleur not to quit the game "as long as he had some music left in him."

"Well, in 1971, I was having a hard time hearing the music," Howe wrote. "The team was losing and our prospects for the next season weren't looking any better."

The 1970-71 season had been torture for Howe, who missed 10 games with a rib injury and was troubled by various aches and pains. His 23 goals, 29 assists and 52 points were his lowest totals since he had 12 goals and 37 points in 1948-49, when he missed 20 games following knee surgery.

Mr. Hockey moved into a front-office job with the Red Wings; ultimately, it turned out to be a figurehead position he couldn't stomach.

So Howe did what he knew best: He laced up his skates again in 1973-74 to begin a six-season run in the World Hockey Association with the Houston Aeros and New England Whalers. When that chapter closed, he returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers at age 51 for a final season in 1979-80, stunningly having played professionally through five decades.

Such was the star quality of Howe and Beliveau that the Hall of Fame chose not to wait three years after they retired to consider them for election.

It wasn't a precedent; four star forwards previously had been enshrined immediately upon or within two years of retirement: Dit Clapper of the Boston Bruins in 1947, Montreal's Maurice Richard in 1961, Detroit's Ted Lindsay in 1966, and Red Kelly, of Detroit and the Toronto Maple Leafs, in 1969. Goalie Terry Sawchuk, most famously of Detroit, was inducted in 1971, the year after his accidental offseason death.

Since then, three more legends have been elected to the Hall right after they retired: Boston defenseman Bobby Orr in 1979, Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux in 1997 (though he did return three years later for portions of five more seasons), and Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers in 1999.

Gretzky was the sole player elected that year; only he and Boston's Bill Cowley, in 1968, share that distinction since the Hall's first Toronto selection meeting in 1958.

It was after Gretzky's immediate election that the shrine reworked its constitution. The three-year waiting period was restored in 1999, barring what the Hall describes as "certain humanitarian circumstances."

With Beliveau at the Olympics and the soft-spoken Howe a man of few words in his acceptance speech, it was left to Geoffrion to grab the banquet hall by the scruff of the neck, as he loved to do.

Geoffrion, the son-in-law of late Canadiens legend Howie Morenz, an inaugural Class of 1945 Hall of Fame inductee, was by now coach of the expansion Atlanta Flames, spreading the gospel of hockey to Dixie with his gigantic personality and unique French-accented southern drawl. The Boomer's baritone filled the room without need of a microphone.

"Tonight I love everyone in this room because you honor me," the six-time Stanley Cup champion roared. "But remember this: When October comes and the season starts, I hate your guts!"

They were words not heard in the Hockey Hall of Fame before, or since, and the Boomer laughed more loudly than anyone.

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