The 2023 class included two pioneers of women’s hockey. Sandra Dombrowski played the first, unofficial Women’s World Championship in 1987, became the first female to officiate at a Women’s World Championship gold medal game in 1992 and was later the first woman in the IIHF Referees’ Committee.
Throughout her career, Dombrowski took the initiative and made the game accessible to women and girls – from founding her own team to overseeing a huge increase in the number of female officials at the IIHF.
Her Hall of Fame status highlights how attitudes have changed: “My father was among the spectators at one of my games and had to leave after the first period because he couldn’t take the comments from the supporters around him,” she recalled of the early days. Now, she is proud to be the first woman in the IIHF Hall of Fame in the Officials’ category.
As well as Dombrowski, Canada’s Caroline Ouellette took her place in the Hall of Fame. She won four Olympic golds, plus 12 World Championship medals (six gold, six silver).
As a child, Caroline dreamed of playing for the Montreal Canadiens. Instead, watching Team Canada win the 1990 Women’s World Championship inspired a new ambition. “In 1990 my new dream became real,” she said. “That just shows the importance of role models.”
Among the biggest role models on that team was France Montour. “France had huge importance in my life,” added Ouellette. “She challenged me to become fitter and a better athlete.
“I made Team Canada on talent only. After talking to France, I decided to become the best athlete I could be.”
The ceremony in Tampere paid tribute to a pair of goaltenders from different eras. Great Britain’s Jimmy Foster is an oft-overlooked figure, but in the 1930s he was a giant of the international game. The peak of his career came in 1936 when the Glasgow native backstopped GB to Olympic gold, and he remains the most decorated netminder from a nation outside the big six.
His granddaughter Lawrie Denley accepted the honour on behalf of Jimmy, who died in Winnipeg in 1969. “For me and my family this has been a very special gift,” she said. “It has brought back many memories and led us down roads we have not travelled for a long time.
“To you, Jimmy Foster was a great player. To me, he was an incredible grandfather. My memories are through the eyes of a child. I remember a man who was always smiling, patient and upbeat, quick to laugh and quick to play. There were many Saturday nights we spent watching hockey games on a tiny black-and-white TV ... After dinner, as a special treat, my grandfather would let me stand on his feet and we would waltz around the living room together. He loved to dance and he could skip and do speed drills like a professional boxer. At the age of five or six, these were incredible feats and, at the time, even more impressive than saving speeding pucks.”
From the modern era, French legend Cristobal Huet took his place in the Hall. The first of his countrymen to get his name on the Stanley Cup, he also represented team France in 13 World Championships – first in Tampere in 1997, the last on home ice in Paris in 2017. In that time, he helped establish France as a top-tier nation.
“Our team spirit was always the top at the World Championship,” he recalled. “I’m pretty proud of what we did.
“Hockey has always been my passion, but I dreamed of playing for Grenoble and for Team France, not of going to the NHL. But playing at the World Championships got me there. Those championships were a great experience. For any athlete, the greatest thing is to measure yourself against the best, and the most important was to create the lifelong friendships with teammates over 20 or more years who are still my friends now.”
Inspired by international play
The 2023 class also honours two players for whom international hockey proved an inspiration and an education.
Brian Leetch, part of the Rangers team that ended a prolonged trophy drought in 1994, remembers how and when he first got serious about hockey.
“When I was 12 or 13 our team travelled to a tournament and stayed in a hotel,” he recalled. "One night the parents and coaches got us together to watch a game a hotel room. It was Lake Placid, the U.S. versus Russia. Everybody knows how it ended, and we watched, throwing pillows around the room!
“At that time, the NHL wasn’t even a dream for me, but seeing a bunch of college kids on TV playing the sport they loved changed everything.” Within a few years, Leetch was trying out for the USA national program and he went on to a great career internationally and domestically.
For Henrik Zetterberg, international hockey was a springboard that launched a Triple Gold career and the rare achievement of winning Olympic and World Championship gold in the same season in 2006.
“The [Swedish] national team was a big part of my development,” he said. “I got to play two World Championships and an Olympics before I moved to Detroit. That gave me the belief and confidence that I could play against the best.”
Zetterberg' international peak came in the 2006 double gold year. "That Torino team with all the big stars there was probably not the easiest team to coach, but Bengt-Ake Gustafsson found a way to make it work.
“To come back to Stockholm and celebrate with the fans after the Olympics and the World Championship is something I wish all Swedish hockey players could be a part of.”
This year, host nation Finland was represented by two builders of the game. Tampere native Kimmo Leinonen received the Paul Loicq award, while Kalervo Kummola was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Leinonen, a veteran with decades of experience in building Finnish hockey and the international game, was instrumental in the establishment of the IIHF Hall of Fame back in 1996. On joining its ranks today, he took the opportunity to urge other countries to explore and commemorate their own hockey heritage in similar fashion.
“There are a mere 20 nations with their own Halls of Fame,” he said. “I would encourage every country that hasn’t established one to please do that, to preserve the history of hockey in your own countries.
“You don’t need to build a museum, for a Hall of Fame you only need a wall to display the plaques and pictures of all these people from your history.”
Kummola might have been a third goalie honoured in this year’s group, but his team-mates rated his leadership qualities above his netminding skills. Thus, aged just 22, he was voted president of his club in 1967 and began a long career in sports administration. His team-mates were prescient: under Kalervo’s guidance, Finnish hockey went on to win its first ever World Championship gold in 1995, establishing the country as a leader in the global game.
“The greatest moment for me was our first World Championship in Stockholm,” he recalled. “We had a Swedish coach, Curt Lindstrom, who I found in a nightclub in Munich in 1993!
“Thanks, Curt. You brought Finnish hockey something we were lacking – the skill to win.”
The Bibi Torriani Award went to Hungary’s Viktor Szelig, who played international hockey for more than 20 years and lifted the Magyars to the elite pool in 2009. Szelig, who played club hockey for hometown club Dunauvaros and Briancon in France, reflected on how times have changed in Hungarian hockey. He recalled his first national team practices, on outdoor rinks, where for every five minutes skating the team would spend 15 minutes shovelling snow off the surface.
“In my first year on the national team we played in pool C to avoid relegation,” he said. “In 2009, we played in Pool A. That’s an incredible journey, we came really far together and we can put Hungary on the international hockey map.
“I hope that through me, maybe everybody who was part of that can feel something of this award. I’m just the captain, here to speak up for them.”