By Tim Schmitt
Sporting a paisley tie and checkered shirt, Phil Housley stood at the back of the press box in a building where he never played a home game and received a hometown hero’s welcome Wednesday, complete with cream puff questions from the local media.
How could he not?
Where others have justly grown old, Housley’s appearance has hardly changed from the days when he spun top-like in the Aud, dizzying opponents as well as those leaning at the wall above the oranges with a cold one in a waxy SportService cup. Well-mannered with a cherubic grin, Housley is still a ringer for the kid that got Rick Jeanneret into the nickname game.
Housley even did the right thing after his two full decades in the league, which included eight seasons with the Sabres, heading home to his native Minnesota to raise four kids among family and friends. He hopes to someday follow in the footsteps of former teammate Lindy Ruff and coach an NHL squad, but insists he’s content for now as the leader of a high school team.
While Terrell Owens, Ron Artest and Tie Domi do jumping jacks on one end of the teeter-totter of sports likability, Housley has his heels dug in on the opposite bench, standing tall for those who deserve the adoration.
All of which makes it agonizing to clear my throat and say the following:
Phil Housley does not belong in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
With 1,232 points, he has more points than any other American-born player. That alone will get him in, even if it’s not the right thing to do.
Statistics are the simplest way to measure a player’s success, especially in an era where dynasties no longer stand proud and individual accomplishments are ultimately worth more coin than winning.
But while Housley’s longevity is to be commended, it shouldn’t be revered with the greatness of guys like Guy LaFleur, Housley’s idol.
There’s a good reason Housley never won a Norris Trophy, never seemed indispensable to one franchise and only saw the second round of the playoffs twice in his 21 seasons.
He rarely scored at crunch time and was largely a defensive liability.
In NHL 2007, that might be OK. Despite Don Cherry’s objections, the game is more about the engine than the chassis these days, meaning guys who can’t clear the front of the net or grind through a two-handed Cam Neely hold don’t command the same premium.
Housley would look nifty on a backline with, say, Henrik Tallinder, giving a turbo punch to any power play.
But when teams like the Sabres needed him to grit his teeth and perform, regardless of the rules or style of play, he rarely did. And he rarely did in any of his other eight stops, only getting to the finals once, when his Washington Capitals beat the Sabres in the Eastern Conference semis during the 1998 playoffs.
Not coincidentally, it was Housley’s least productive year, the one where he wasn’t called on to make big plays.
Housley was a good player and a better man. He was fun to watch. He’s as easy to love today as he was when the Sabres shipped him to Winnipeg as part of the deal that brought Dale Hawerchuk.
But while a mild disposition and a set of wheels made him hard to dislike, they never made Housley a winner. And if the Hall is truly for those who were the best of the best, winning is ultimately the final test.
Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, Ext. 2266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.