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100 Greatest Players

NHL legends honored to be among 100 Greatest Players

Five of first 33, families of others, attend New Year's Eve dinner with Commissioner Gary Bettman

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- The honoring of the greatest players in NHL history began New Year's Eve not with fireworks, but with a quiet dinner hosted by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman that was attended by a small galaxy of living legends as well as many proud children, grandchildren and relatives.

The 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian is a glittering list, and Saturday's elegant-yet-casual hotel-ballroom dinner saluting the first 33 was a perfect nod to the brilliance and the folksy appeal of these stars from the League's first half-century.

The first 33 were announced at Exhibition Stadium on Sunday prior to the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic, but not before this dinner had paid them a special tribute.

Ten of the 33 are still living; five were in attendance, humbled to a man that their names were on the list.

The next 67, from the NHL's second half-century (1967-2017), will be announced at a gala presentation on Jan. 27 during the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game weekend in Los Angeles.

Goaltender Glenn Hall and forwards Johnny Bucyk, Alex Delvecchio, Red Kelly and Dave Keon were on hand Saturday. Goaltender Johnny Bower and forwards Ted Lindsay, Frank Mahovlich, Henri Richard and Milt Schmidt, unable to attend, were represented by family members.

Family also represented the 23 players no longer with us. The gathering was assembled in a ballroom framed by two huge screens featuring a magnificent slide show of all 33, every one a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

At the front of the room, polished to its usual high gloss and the evening's most-sought photo opportunity, was the Stanley Cup.

Hall, Bucyk, Delvecchio, Kelly and Keon had gathered for a private pre-dinner photo down the hall shortly after 7 p.m., and it was then that Keon, the legendary Toronto Maple Leafs center, dropped this delicious piece of trivia.

"All five of us were at one time property of the Detroit Red Wings," he said, pausing for effect. "But I was 12 at the time."

Video: Dave Keon led Toronto to three straight Cup titles

The career winnings of the evening's guest list are almost ridiculous.

Combined, the 33 won 140 Stanley Cup championships and were selected to NHL All-Star teams 209 times. Then there's the list of player trophies, 95 in all: Hart, 25; Vezina, 24; Lady Byng, 15; Art Ross, 13; Norris, 8; Calder, 6; Conn Smythe, 3; Masterton, 1.

But as you moved around the ballroom and sat with these great champions, the common thread was this: they saw their careers defined not by their trophy cases, but by the challenge of the chase, the unshakable friendships they made and the bonds they forged with teammates and opponents along the way.

"It's very exciting. I'm very honored, and surprised," said Bucyk, whose two Stanley Cup rings, won with the Boston Bruins in 1970 and 1972, sparkled on fingers that curved unnaturally this way and that from his 23 seasons in hockey's trenches. "We've had a lot of great players through the years and I've played with them and against them, so this is something special."

Delvecchio was one of the 100 players or family members who had taken a personal call from Commissioner Bettman telling him that he was on the list.

"It's unbelievable," Delvecchio said. "Mr. Bettman called me and mentioned it and I was flabbergasted. I didn't even realize it was him telling me this until two days later, when I mentioned it to my wife, Judy. It's a great honor and it's great to see these guys here tonight. It brings back a lot of memories.

"You look back and you realize that were all in there, pitching away, trying to be a hero or a star. Some nights you played real well, other nights you didn't. But if you had a bad game one night, the next night you'd get 'em back." 
"Mr. Goalie," as Hall is nicknamed, sat transfixed by the historic images that flashed onto the screens one after another.

Video: Ironman Glenn Hall started 502 straight games in goal

"There's Max Bentley," he marveled. "And Eddie Shore …

"It's tremendously complimentary being on this list, and it's a great feeling to sit here with people I played with and against. I come from Saskatchewan and I met the Canadiens' Elmer Lach, a wonderful man from Nokomis, long, long after he had retired. Tonight I met Elmer's stepdaughter, Denise. To meet these relatives; what a great gathering, what a great job the League has done. To be included is something special."

For Keon, this is the latest in a string of honors that has come his way. It began with three in as many days in October: the unveiling of his statue on Maple Leafs Legends Row at Air Canada Centre, then being voted the top Maple Leafs player of all time on a list of 100, and finally having his No. 14 retired by the franchise and hung from the arena rafters.

Now he joins a list of the greatest players in NHL history.

"I haven't really put it all in perspective," Keon said. "But I know it's been kind of overwhelming, the three days in October, and now this weekend and what will happen at the end of January (at the All-Star gala). I will have had four terrific months to think back and enjoy.

"I believe I played with or against most of the great players of the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s. To be included in this group is a great honor." 
The stately Kelly, at 89 the oldest in the hall, sat nearby. He was also quietly ecstatic about the evening and his place in it.

"I think it's fantastic, really, just to be part of it somewhere," he said. "I played with and against a lot of great players in my career. I think that some of those players are overlooked today because people maybe never saw them play. But they were great, in a six-team league. I know how good of hockey players they were.

"Being one of the 100, that's something you could never dream of. Your dream as a kid was to play in the NHL and once you got there, it was to win a Stanley Cup."

Maybe 10 feet in front of Kelly sat hockey's Holy Grail; had he gone to look, he'd have found his name engraved on it eight times. That's the most won by anyone who never played for the Canadiens.

"I guess that is my record," Kelly said.

And then, with a grin: "So at least I know those were eight Stanley Cups the Montreal team didn't get."

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