Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Does the Hockey Hall of Fame need to change?

It’s Hall of Fame time in the world or pro sports, with baseball announcing who’ll head to Cooperstown today and pro football following with its own announcement in early February. It’s a cool time to be a sports fan, with plenty of debate over who should make it, who got snubbed, and who should never have been inducted in the first place.

Hockey fans won’t get to do that this year, since the Hockey Hall of Fame has already announced that there won’t be a class of 2021. But when it comes to the sport’s highest honor, maybe hockey fans can take this time to have a different debate: Are we even doing this right?

The Hockey Hall of Fame process is, to put it mildly, an opaque one. It’s also not especially well understood by most hockey fans, although we here at The Athletic did our best to shine some light on how it all works last summer. The hockey hall has a committee of 18 members who meet in private once per year, and each member can nominate one name in each of four categories. (There’s also a process for members of the public to submit a nomination.) The committee discusses and debates each candidate, then holds one or more rounds of secret ballot votes. It takes support from 14 of the 18 members for a candidate to earn induction, and neither the vote totals, the discussions surrounding them, or even the names of the nominees being considered are ever revealed to the public.

Is that the right way to do it? Maybe. But it’s certainly not the only way, as we’ll be reminded in the coming days by our baseball and football colleagues. So today, let’s take a look at some other ways that the Hockey Hall of Fame could make its selections, and see if we think any of them would be an improvement over what we have now.

The baseball method

The process: Ballots go out to selected members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and the voting pool is a big one; last year, just under 400 votes were cast. A player needs 75% to make the Hall. Players who don’t make the 75% threshold but get more than 5% of the vote can stay on the ballot for up to ten years. (There’s also a path through a veteran’s committee for players who aren’t voted in by writers.)

Writers are allowed to make their ballots public, and many do, although it’s not mandatory. The full vote totals for all players are released publicly at the end of the process.

The case for: The key here is the release of the voting totals, which gives fans a sense for how candidates are tracking over time. There’s a big difference between Bobby Abreu barely staying on last year’s ballot with 5.5% and Curt Schilling falling just short of induction with 70%, and those numbers can change over time as candidates come and go and the writers reconsider individual cases.

At its best, you can get situations like Larry Walker or Tim Raines, who see their support grow over the years until they’re left with a dramatic final few chances to make the Hall. Fans always know who’s close and who’s not, and which players are tracking towards induction. There’s suspense, but rarely anything truly shocking. Compare that to hockey, where the induction of long-time candidates like Kevin Lowe or Mark Howe can catch fans off guard, and there’s no way to know whether somebody like Alexander Mogilny or Daniel Alfredsson is narrowly missing out, or even being discussed at all.

As an added bonus, having hundreds of voters means that no one voice is especially powerful, and no longstanding friendships (or grudges) are going to decide who gets in and who doesn’t.

The case against: The first objection here might be that it’s writers doing the voting, and hockey fans might not want that. I think the PHWA does a pretty good job on the annual awards, but we’re certainly not perfect, and maybe you’d prefer to have someone else doing the voting. There’s also the related question of whether journalists should have a role in creating the news they’re going to report on, and the risk that some attention-starved hack will decide to cast a bad ballot just to get a few hate-clicks out of it.

But the bigger objection would be that all the focus on precise vote totals can lose the forest for the trees. Maybe a player is either a Hall-of-Famer or they’re not. If you’re a candidate and you don’t get the call, do you really want to know exactly where you rank compared to everyone else, or just how bleak your odds might be for the future? And if someone does get in, do we really need to argue over whether they were left off some stray ballot somewhere? Just give us the name of the successful candidates so we can celebrate them without obsessing on exact totals.

(Also, while this wouldn’t be as much of a concern in the hockey world at this point, it’s worth mentioning that the baseball hall has really struggled with reckoning with the steroid era, and there’s been plenty of drama around that.)

Would it be better?: I think it would be, for all its flaws. While baseball doesn’t have total transparency – remember, writers can refuse to reveal their ballots – it comes far closer than hockey does, and that matters. And it’s just more fun for fans to debate this stuff when they have some idea of who’s trending where, as opposed to being shocked by announcements that sometimes feel almost random.

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