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Willie O’Ree didn’t know he had broken the NHL’s color barrier when he made
his debut in 1958. Martin Brodeur couldn’t see the three Stanley Cup titles and
jaw-dropping career ahead when he played his first game in goal for the New
Jersey Devils in 1992 and Burch
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 , a year later, Gary Bettman didn’t know he would end
up growing the league by leaps and bounds over the next 25 years as its

All three will go into the Hockey Hall of Fame together as the headliners of
a trailblazing class of 2018 that also includes diminutive forward Martin St.
Louis, four-time gold-medal-winning Canadian women’s national team star Jayna
Hefford and Russian Alexander Yakushev.

O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL, Bettman has overseen the
league’s expansion into a multibillion-dollar industry and Brodeur piled up the
most wins and shutouts of any goaltender in NHL history.

”This is an exciting class to be around because everyone has tried to take
their game to the next level,” Bettman said Tuesday. ”I really wasn’t focused on
whether this was happening now; I was really focused on whether Willie O’Ree was
going to be selected because that to me was a very important act for the Hall to

Bettman has been commissioner since 1993, during which time the NHL has
expanded its footprint across North America and increased from 24 to 31 teams.
In that time, the league has gone from a $437 million business to one with
almost $5 billion in revenue. It’s been an occasionally bruising ride, with
three work stoppages, including one that canceled the entire 2004-05 season and
led to the salary cap. But Bettman has been nothing if not a strong
leader Authentic
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 , and all-time great Wayne Gretzky said the
efforts to help each club compete have made the game stronger.

”His leadership and love for hockey is very evident,” Gretzky said. ”Hockey
has become more entertaining year after year, thanks in part to his passion for
the game.”

Brodeur lifted the Stanley Cup three times with the Devils between 1995 and
2003. He leads all goalies with 691 wins and 125 shutouts in 1,266
regular-season games with the Devils and St. Louis Blues, and he won the Vezina
Trophy four times. He won 113 playoff games and had a 2.02 postseason
goals-against average. Brodeur also scored two regular-season goals and another
in the playoffs – more than any other goalie.

The Montreal native was the last real standup goaltender as the position
moved almost exclusively to the butterfly technique, and his puck-handling
prowess led the NHL to institute the trapezoid behind the net as a way to
increase scoring.

”You play your whole career and you don’t expect to get this phone call, but
when it does, it definitely does feel pretty good,” said Brodeur Steve
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 , the Blues assistant GM who was sitting alongside
Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson at prospect camp in St. Louis when he got
the news. ”I want to thank the committee for putting me on so early.”

While Brodeur and St. Louis were first-ballot selections, O’Ree had been
waiting decades for this honor since making history at the Montreal Forum on
Jan. 18, 1958, with the Boston Bruins. He was 32.

A native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, in Eastern Canada, O’Ree finished
with four goals and 10 assists in 45 NHL games during the 1957-58 and 1960-61
seasons despite being 95 percent blind in his right eye. O’Ree was the first
black player in the NHL but he will be the third inducted into the Hall of Fame,
joining Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr and Canadian women’s national team
captain Angela James.

”Willie paved the path for the rest of us,” Fuhr said. ”In that way he is a
true builder of the game. If you look up the word `builder Matt
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 ,’ there should be a picture of Willie. He is the
Jackie Robinson of hockey.”

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs said O’Ree receiving this honor was long overdue,
adding ”Willie has been a tremendous figure in our game both on and off the ice
for over 60 years.”

Now 82, O’Ree works for the NHL as diversity ambassador, helping with its
”Hockey is for Everyone” initiative. There are now about two dozen black players
currently on NHL rosters.

”I knew that there were going to be more black players not only playing pro
but eventually getting into the National Hockey League,” O’Ree said. ”Now
there’s 31 teams in the league and you can see that the black players and the
players of color that are playing there, they’re there because they have the
skills and the ability to be in the league.”

St. Louis was a 5-foot-8 winger who put up 1,033 points in 1,134
regular-season games over 17 seasons, winning the Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and
an Olympic gold medal with Canada in 2014.

”When people tried to discourage me along the way Josh
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 , that’s just life,” St. Louis said. ”I definitely
used that as a motivation in trying to prove people wrong.”

Hefford won four Olympic gold medals and seven world championships, putting
up 30 points in 26 Olympic games. She said the honor was more emotional than
some of her medals because she could share it with so many family members,
friends and teammates.

Yakushev became known to North American hockey fans during the 1972 Summit
Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, with 11 points in eight games. He
also won Olympic gold medals in 1972 and 1976.image

Hall chairmen Lanny McDonald and John Davidson reached Yakushev in Russia,
right after he had come off the ice after playing a game at the age of 71.

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