Members of the 2019 United States Hockey Hall of Fame enjoyed immeasurable success, while making countless contributions to the game, but they also spent a significant portion of their respective careers growing the sport.
“It’s truly a remarkable Class,” said Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey. “Each of the five inductees have their own unique and immeasurable contribution to our great game. They’re extremely deserving of the highest hockey honor in our country and we look forward to formally enshrining them into the Hall in December.”
Gary Bettman, Brian Gionta, Neal Henderson, Tim Thomas and Krissy Wendell will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as the Class of 2019, announced Wednesday by USA Hockey. The five will formally be enshrined in a ceremony on Thursday, Dec. 12, in Washington D.C.
“It is a great recognition of the work that goes on by the hundreds of people at the league office and at the clubs,” said Bettman, the National Hockey League’s current and first-ever commissioner. “And I think this recognition is more about the growth of the game than it is about any individual, including me. It is certainly an honor to be part of the 47th class and to be honored with Brian, Tim, Neal and Krissy.”
Bettman, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, has guided the NHL to unprecedented success in 26-plus years as commissioner. He has positively influenced the development of the game at all levels, including growth, visibility and reach throughout the country.
A native of Queens, New York, he led the league from 24 teams to its soon-to-be 32-team format in 2021, including exceptional growth in non-traditional areas like Arizona, Texas, Nevada and Tennessee where new franchises were established. He highlighted a greater emphasis on initiatives to teach the sport locally.
“I believe the efforts of USA Hockey organizing at the grassroots level have been essential to the growth of the game,” Bettman said. “But when I talk to people at USA Hockey, they say the fact that we have more franchises in more places have helped fuel that growth. My guess is that it’s been a collaboration of all the governing bodies and organizations, local and national that are committed to hockey, including college, which has helped grow the game.”
The league is also more visible in terms of franchises, large-scale events and media exposure. Bettman has ensured coast-to-coast availability of hockey that includes media deals with companies like Fox, ABC, ESPN, Comcast and currently NBC. He’s also introduced creative initiatives like the Winter Classic, which showcases the game in an outdoor environment on Jan. 1.
“When you have moments like this, it tends to cause you to look back and feel a little older,” Bettman said. “But having looked at all the wonderful things the game has done in communities, I’m grateful to be associated with the game and to be part of watching it grow to unprecedented heights.”
Gionta enjoyed a 16-year NHL career, which began in 2001. A native of Rochester, New York, Gionta played in more than 1,000 NHL regular-season games, scoring 595 points, while serving as captain of the Montreal Canadiens and his hometown Buffalo Sabres. The 5-foot-7 Gionta also won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003.
“I was very fortunate to have a long career and have been part of a lot of different teams,” Gionta said. “I thank everyone who gave me a shot growing up, and being undersized, gave me the opportunity to go out and prove myself. When you’re playing, you don’t look at yourself as somebody who wants to win awards, you just go out there day-to-day living your dream, and I was very fortunate that hockey gave me a great life, and I was able to have some dreams come true.”
Gionta first starred at Boston College, leading the Eagles to the NCAA Frozen Four in each of his four years there. That included 2001, when Gionta guided BC to the school’s second national championship and first since 1949.
Gionta also represented Team USA on nine different occasions, including the 2006 and 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
“Anytime you can represent your country, it’s a dream come true,” Gionta said. “Every time I put that jersey on, it sent chills down my back. Competing on that stage, especially the Olympic stage, is something you dream of as a kid.”
Gionta led Team USA in goal-scoring with four in six games during the 2006 Games in Torino. He served as team captain in 2018 on a young team with no current NHL players.
“I don’t want to say that it was more special than the 2006 Olympics, but as I got older, I was able to soak in the whole experience,” Gionta said. “And for my kids to be part of that was really special. I’m just fortunate that I had the opportunity to go over there and help lead that team.”
Thomas, a native of Flint, Michigan, was a four-time NHL All-Star, two-time Vezina Trophy winner and a Stanley Cup champion with the Boston Bruins in 2011. At age 37, he became the oldest, and the second American at the time, to ever win a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
“I’m honored to be receiving this recognition,” Thomas said. “I’d like to thank USA Hockey for experiences that led to a storybook life. I’m grateful.”
Thomas helped the University of Vermont to two NCAA Tournaments, including the school’s first-ever berth in the Frozen Four in 1996. He also still holds school records with 81 wins and 3,950 saves. Thomas, picked by Quebec in the 1994 NHL Draft, spent time in the Finnish Elite League, International Hockey League, Swedish Hockey League and American Hockey League before sticking in the NHL full-time in the 2005-06 season with Boston.
“My whole life has been rewarding,” Thomas said. “My time with Boston was rewarding, my time with USA Hockey was rewarding. Family is the most rewarding thing in the long run. They’re the ones who are there when you cut through all the smoke.”
Wendell, a native of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, excelled at every level of hockey, from leading Park Center High School to a state title, to winning a national championship at the University of Minnesota and onto winning world championship and Olympic medals. She was part of a wave, throughout her playing career from 1999-2007, that substantially grew the women’s game.
“I could’ve never dreamed of the opportunities this sport would provide, the places I’ve been able to see, the wonderful people I met and played with or even that the Olympics were a possibility,” Wendell said. “It’s been fun to watch the girls’ game continue to grow and provide opportunities.”
Wendell represented the U.S. in 147 games, registering 247 points, including 106 goals. She also represented her country in the 2002 and 2006 Olympic Winter Games, serving as captain in the latter year.
In her nine-year stint as a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team, Wendell won one gold medal, six silvers and a bronze in international competition. She played in six IIHF Women’s World Championships, including 2005, when she helped the U.S. win its first-ever gold medal with an MVP performance that included a tournament-best nine points.
Wendell scored 219 goals in two years and helped her high school win its first-ever state title. She was a three-time All-American at Minnesota, two-time national champion and was the winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top women’s player in college hockey. Her 2.35 points per game remains fourth all-time.
Now that her playing career is over, Wendell is excited to see the women’s game continue to grow.
“There isn’t one big switch you can flip and things change,” Wendell said. “You have to do a lot of hard work and you have to be out in the community. The exposure is great, but it’s the little things behind the scenes, providing equipment, doing camps, clinics and just watching the game expand.”
Henderson, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, also made an extraordinary impact in the lives of young people.
In 1978, he founded the Fort Dupont Cannons Ice Hockey Club in Washington D.C. For more than 40 years, Henderson provided a place to play hockey for local inner-city youth skaters with an opportunity to learn the game and participate in an organized league, while building character and teaching positive life skills.
Henderson’s work inspired the creation of similar programs in Harlem, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and beyond. The Washington Capitals, in 2018, also celebrated Henderson’s Cannons for their contribution to the spread of hockey in Washington D.C.
“He’s honored, I’m honored, our family is honored, his grandchildren are honored, the team and the organization is honored,” said his son Neal Henderson Jr., speaking for his father who was recovering from outpatient surgery on Wednesday.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.