By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
Greetings from Troy, NY, where the New York State Hockey Hall of Fame officially welcomed its first class of inductees. Sunday evening, May 22, 2022, will go down in history as the day New York State finally stood up and admitted what we’ve all known for quite some time; it’s pretty damn good at nearly everything.
Does it have wonderful scenery? Check. Multi-seasonal climates all within driving distance? Check. Good food? Check. And lastly, it has a great sports scene.
Yes, we all know New York City hasn’t had a champion of its own in 10-years – sorry NYCFC. I wish soccer was on par with the other major sports but it isn’t, not in New York at least. But just because NYC and NY State are lacking recent championships doesn’t mean it’s not still a great place for sports.
The fact that the New York State Hockey Hall of Fame welcomed over a dozen members into its family is testament to how great the hockey scene is in New York. This isn’t Canada. This isn’t Minnesota. Who knew New York boasted such great hockey? Answer: We all knew, we just needed to open our eyes and see it.
Among the inductees Sunday evening were some legendary Islanders – Butch Goring, Bob Nystrom and Pat LaFonatine – some beloved United States Olympic Heroes from the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” Team – Jack O’Callahan, Mark Wells and Lou Vairo – and more. Plus, just to show you how terrific New York hockey has been – and still is – The Hall put in several FULL TEAMS. The 1980-83 Islanders and the aforementioned 1980 Olympic team were each inducted in their entirety.
Rene LeRoux, who operates the New York State Baseball, New York State Basketball and New York State Hockey Hall of Fames achieved his Hall Hat-Trick and brought fans a memorable evening that will serve as a springboard for future inductions.
Getting back to the inductees, there were two common themes in their speeches. One, New York is the place to be. Butch Goring even pointed out that beyond the fans in New York being great, several of his Islanders compatriots even met their wives in New York.
Pat LaFontaine further accentuated the point about loving New York when he pointed out he is the only NHL player to play for all three NY teams – Islanders, Sabres and Rangers – without ever playing for any other teams in the league. As he joyously quipped during his speech, “I never had to change my license plate.”
The other point made during the speeches was how hockey players are so much more than just athletes and how their playing careers are really just a small part of what they do. Many of them are active in their respective communities doing whatever they can to help those in need. For LaFontaine, he has his Companions in Courage Foundation that helps Children’s Hospitals. Clark Gillies, who was inducted posthumously, was also known for his charitable endeavors; something Bob Nystrom made sure to talk about while accepting his and Gillies’ inductions.
Jean Pavelich, the sister of the late Mark Pavelich, was also on hand for the 1980 team’s induction. Pavelich’s former teammates, including former Sabres goalie, Clint Malarchuk, who appeared in 102 games for Buffalo from 1988-92, talked extensively about their efforts to help former athletes in need so that nobody has to suffer the way Mark Pavelich did. Jean and Clint are part of what’s known as “The Ranch.” For more information about their efforts, you can visit their site https://theranchteammatesforlife.org/.
In an effort to lighten the mood, it was a celebratory event after all, Keynote Speaker and inductee, Jack O’Callahan mentioned how he fondly recalls a time when Mark Pavelich once sang him to sleep while they were teammates.
O’Callahan wasn’t the only one to bring some jokes to the event as Butch Goring shared a story about playing against Islanders goalie Billy Smith before the 1980 trade that made them teammates. Goring swore Smith nearly broke his foot by chopping at him during a game. When he asked Smith about it after the game, the Isles netminder swiftly denied doing such a thing. As everybody knows, you didn’t go near Smith’s crease back in the day; he would do anything he could to beat you, even if it meant occasionally getting away with what should have been a penalty.
Of course, those were just some of the highlights of the evening. And in case you were wondering, inductees to the New York State Hockey Hall of Fame do not need to have played in the NHL. This new Hall is about more than just numbers and accolades. It’s about the people. It’s about the contributions to the sport. And it’s about honoring those who perhaps the casual NHL fan has overlooked. After all, hockey is not something that belongs solely to the National Hockey League.
Mark Wells and Lou Vairo never played in the NHL, but they were both big pieces of the 1980 Olympic team. Wells was a key player on the team and Vairo was an all important Advance Scout, who, through the power of his scouting reports, helped Herb Brooks and Co. get Wells, O’Callahan, Pavelich, etc. prepared for each game of the grueling Olympic tournament.
It goes back to what I said before. New York is great at nearly everything and it’s time to recognize that hockey is one of those many things it does exceptionally well. Now, we wait and see who the NY State Hockey Hall of Fame inducts next year.