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Nerves are on edge as inductees anticipate the big moment

by Dan Rosen

Mark Messier hopes his experience speaking at his retirement ceremonies will prove beneficial.
Darryl Sittler remembers being nervous all day long. Denis Potvin, comfortable in front of a camera since he was 15 years old, recalls there were people he forgot to thank and experiences he would have liked to emphasize in greater detail.

Being a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame means you’re royalty in the sport, but when the honoree finally reaches the podium, even the greatest champions and most influential captains feel like rookies playing in their first game.

They stumble. They forget. They lose focus. They get emotional.

”No matter how much you prepare, you still sit back and say, ‘I really screwed up,’” Potvin said. “I don’t think you’ll ever be happy, but that’s why Hall of Famers are Hall of Famers. You have to strive for perfection.”

For Scott Stevens, Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis and Jim Gregory, their debuts as Hall of Famers are just hours away, and the reality of the moment finally is setting in.

“Put me in front of 30,000 people to play a hockey game and I’m comfortable,” Francis said. “Put me in front of 500 people to talk and that’s probably where I’m the least comfortable.”

“I have that nervousness like you’re approaching a game that you have to win,” Gregory added.

All four players being inducted have spoken at their own jersey retirement ceremonies (Messier and Francis each did it twice in separate cities), and they’re hoping that experience will prove beneficial.

Still, though, nothing compares to the speech they’re going to give Monday night.

“It’s like winning a Stanley Cup,” Potvin said. “You’re so caught up in getting it done, but two days later you’re sitting on the porch saying; ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’”

Francis said on Tuesday that his speech still wasn’t done, that he still was coming to grips with the sheer magnitude of people he wants to thank.

“How do you thank certain people without offending other people?” Francis said. “That’s probably why it (his speech) isn’t done.”

Gregory said he sought the assistance of a friend who is in the speechwriting business, but the advice has been hard to follow.

“He recommended to me that I couldn’t spend the whole time thanking everybody, but it’s really hard not to,” Gregory said. “You have business associates and people who really helped you along the way, and all of your family who have put up with a lot of things. In my case it’s mostly being a no-show at family stuff because I haven’t been able to get the people in the hockey business to start the games at 8 in the morning and be done by noon.”

MacInnis said his speech virtually is ready to go and he feels comfortable with it, but he still is nervous just thinking about getting up and delivering.

“This is one of those where you don’t want to miss anybody that is important in your life and hockey career,” he said. “When you play 23 years there is a lot of help you get along the way, and you want to make sure you touch on all parts.”

Potvin warns that’s virtually impossible. Just like a long playing career, somewhere along the way you’re going to stumble, but staying consistent for the entire four minutes will be your lasting memory.

“It’s like writing a book,” Potvin said. “The people who read it will immediately go to the index page to see if their name is there, and then they look to see what you said about them. There are bound to be people you forget. You will inevitably forget the one guy along the way who really did play an important part.”

“Put me in front of 30,000 people to play a hockey game and I’m comfortable. Put me in front of 500 people to talk and that’s probably where I’m the least comfortable.” - Ron Francis

Which is why Sittler’s advice is to just speak from the heart.

“Most people who are watching, and who you are talking to or about, know the character of the person you are,” he said. “It’s not the grammar of how you say it, but the emotion and heart that is more important than anything.”

The speeches, though, only are part of the emotional rollercoaster each honoree already is enduring. Before they even get to the podium they’ll have orchestrated countless travel plans for family members, and fulfilled numerous media obligations.

When they wake up Monday morning, many say it has the feel of waking up the morning of a Game 7.

The minutes feel like hours. The hours feel like days.

Only now they’re rookies who never have been through anything like it.

“For me, that whole day had a sense of nervousness about it,” Sittler said. “You’re there and it’s live and it’s emotional and it’s a who’s who of your peer group in hockey. Everybody is watching. I was on a nervous edge all day.”


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