NHL honors 100 greatest players ahead of All-Star game

No matter when they played, no matter which team they played for, many players selected as members of the top 100 of the NHL’s first 100 years had a similar reaction to winning that honor.

“I never really expected it,” Hall of Fame goaltender Billy Smith, who won the Stanley Cup four times with the New York Islanders, said of the announcement made Friday during festivities related to Sunday’s All-Star Game at Staples Center and the NHL’s centennial.

“I didn’t see myself as being one of the top 100,” Bobby Clarke said, though he was the heart of the Philadelphia Flyers’ Broad Street Bullies and is a Hall of Famer and two-time Cup winner. “It’s pretty humbling to be honored this way. It’s so special, I can’t describe it.”

Grouped by eras (starting with the 1970s) rather than ranked, 67 players were introduced Friday at the Microsoft Theater. The first group of 33, mostly players who excelled during the NHL’s first 50 years, was honored on New Year’s Day. Overall, 24 players were honored posthumously.

The 100 were chosen in a vote of select executives, media representatives and former players. Commissioner Gary Bettman called each honoree or member of the honoree’s family. “It was nothing short of awesome,” he said. “The more calls I made, the more I wanted to make more. It became a positive obsession.”

Most of the players announced Friday would make every fan’s list, starting with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Marcel Dionne, brothers Phil and Tony Esposito, Bobby Hull, Larry Robinson, Stan Mikita, Mike Bossy, Ken Dryden, Serge Savard, former Ducks Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, and former King Luc Robitaille.

But where were four-time 50-goal scorer Michel Goulet, center Dale Hawerchuk, or goalie Ed Belfour? “There’s a lot of players that deserve to be here. It would be hard to pick,” said top 100 Chris Pronger, the catalyst on the Ducks’ 2007 Cup team.

The prominent contemporary players were Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane, and Florida’s Jaromir Jagr. Notable among the players present from the first group was Red Kelly, an eight-time Cup winner who coached the expansion Kings in 1967. “I played against a lot of great players and I played with some great players,” said Kelly, 89. “To be recognized, at least to be put up there was amazing, really.”

Selanne, who led the Ducks in regular-season scoring in 2006-07, was awed as he stood on stage. “I feel very humbled to be here,” he said. “It’s overwhelming to look around and everywhere is Hockey Hall of Famers, unbelievable hockey players who have done so much for the sport.”

The significance hit home for Niedermayer when he saw some older players who were favorites of his youth. “It’s surreal in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s a tremendous honor. There are so many great players who are not here, unfortunately.”

The NHL decided from the outset not to rank the 100. But Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr agreed that Gordie Howe — who was in that first group of 33 — is No. 1 to them. “Absolutely, Gordie is, in my mind, the best that ever played the game. I’m not sure we’ll see another one,” Orr said. Lemieux agreed, but noted the qualifications of Gretzky and Orr. “Wayne with all the numbers and Bobby really changed the game as far as the way the game is played by a defenseman,” Lemieux said.

Crosby still No. 1

With talk about Connor McDavid as the next great player in the game, Gretzky and Lemieux concurred that Sidney Crosby is still the standard bearer.

“We encourage … that that’s the guy that [Connor] is chasing,” Gretzky said. “Connor sees him in his vision. That’s what makes the game wonderful that you want to be as good as the best player. I know Crosby’s the best player. You have to earn your stripes, and until somebody knocks him of the castle, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Tortorella’s absence

Columbus Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella withdrew from All-Star weekend to tend to his sick dog, the Columbus Dispatch reported.

Tortorella was to coach the Metropolitan Division, but it was announced Thursday that he had to pull out because of a “family emergency,” according to a release. 

Tortorella has a foundation that supports animal-rights causes. His replacement has not been announced. 

Skills competition

Drew Doughty of the Kings will compete in the hardest-shot contest and teammate Jeff Carter will take part in the one-timer and accuracy contest in Saturday’s skills competition.

Ryan Kesler of the Ducks will also do one-timers and a “four-line” shooting contest. Teammate Cam Fowler will do the puck-control portion of the skills relay, and Doughty the passing drill.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

 

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