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US Hockey Hall of Fame induction harkens to, and honors, the long skate to stardom

The 2023 US Hockey Hall of Fame honorees were celebrated Wednesday at the Westin Copley. From left, Katie King Crowley, Jamie Langenbrunner, Dustin Brown, Brian Burke, Brian Murphy, and Lester Patrick Trophy winner Joe Bertagna.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

A handful of very talented hockey lifers had their moment in the spotlight Wednesday night at the Westin Copley Place, a comfy spot many miles and many decades removed from where most of them took their first steps on ice.

They all began somewhere. Most started outside, in the mid-winter chill, skates slung over shoulders or propped on hockey sticks.

Joe Bertagna, who received the Lester Patrick Award for his litany of contributions to US hockey, was the true local in the bunch of honorees. He grew up in Arlington, and was a standout goalie for the high school Spyponders before manning the net at Harvard. The Bertagnas lived near Hills Pond and his sister, Carol, who took him across the street for his first skate.

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“I wore her figure skates,” Bertagna recalled, thinking back to his first twirls in the late 1950s. “They were white, of course, so I had to cover them with black Kiwi boot polish.”

Bertagna, best known for his long tenures as commissioner of ECAC Hockey and Hockey East, was feted alongside five inductees into the US Hockey Hall of Fame — located in Eveleth, Minn.

The honorees included longtime hockey exec Brian Burke, ex-NHL forward Jamie Langenbrunner (now a Bruins assistant GM of player personnel), long-time head coach of the BC women’s team (and ex-Olympian) Katie King Crowley, former LA Kings dynamo Dustin Brown, and long-time NHL linesman Brian Murphy, who today oversees Hockey East’s on-ice officials.

“No one gets into officiating to be recognized,” said the humble Murphy, who grew up in Dover, N.H., and noted how much being recognized meant to him.

Brian Murphy, from Dover, N.H., was inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame Wednesday.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

“Murph,” like Bertagna, also played goal for his public high school; Dover didn’t have an indoor rink when he was growing up. He, too, was a toddler when he first skated, on a rink his dad constructed in the backyard.

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“I was the youngest, which meant I had to play goal,” said Murphy.

The youngest kid, he noted, never gets to choose where to play. The world is full of those goalies, at every level of hockey.

King Crowley, another Granite Stater, couldn’t play for her high school team, as Salem only recently added a Blue Devils women’s program. She said she grew up “wanting to be Cam Neely” — she wasn’t aware of women hockey players to idolize.

One of her first big breaks came when her brother’s team, three years older than her age group, needed someone to play.

“I was about four,” she said, recalling when she first pulled on skates. “I wanted to do everything my older brother did. So I kinda followed him around everywhere — whatever he was doing. I think at some point my parents thought I was a pain the stands, saying, ‘I’ll get out there and play with him.’ ”

The women’s hockey world, ever expanding, especially here in the US, is full of those who proved they can play with anyone.

USA Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Katie King Crowley was the long-time Boston College head coach. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Langenbrunner, a solid winger from Cloquet, Minn., played in 1,109 NHL regular-season games. His first day skating was as a pre-schooler, age four, in International Falls, Minn. Outside.

“And outside in International Falls is . . . outside for sure,” he said. “As cold as it gets!"

Langenbrunner, who said he “tried every sport and hockey was the one that stuck,” also played for his high school, as did Brown in Ithaca, N.Y., and Burke in Edina, Minn.

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In many towns around the US, and especially in eastern Mass., the high school game has seen its profile slip considerably in recent decades. In the era Wednesday’s honorees played, being true to your school was a big deal.

‘It’s a pretty special culture in Minnesota in itself. Sort of compares to Indiana for basketball and Texas for football,” said Langenbrunner. “It still goes strong. The depth of the teams is probably a little less than it used to be just because of other [hockey] opportunities with the USHL and the [NAHL]. Kids are pulled in a lot of different directions. The state tournament still draws 19,000 to the Xcel Energy Center [in St. Paul] every night for the finals.”

To be a kid in Cloquet and pull on that Lumberjacks sweater was “huge.”

“That’s who we went and watched,” Langenbrunner recalled, thinking back to elementary school days. “That’s who we were striving to be.”

Jamie Langenbrunner, now a Bruins assistant GM of player personnel, gives his USA Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

A statue for Brown stands outside Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. He played 1,296 regular-season games for the Kings and has his name twice on the Stanley Cup. That’s where his playing days ended. They began aside Cayuga Lake in Cass Park’s partially covered rink, where he learned to skate as a toddler, pushing a chair.

“High school hockey was fun,” he said, recalling his days playing for the Ithaca Little Red. “There’s something special about playing with, you know, my friends from my hometown. To play in front of your high school classmates, it’s a special thing.”

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Burke, born in Rhode Island, grew up learning the game in Edina and played for Edina West. His parents chose to move there not for hockey, but for the town’s academic reputation. He was 13 when he first played at the nearby Creek Valley outdoor rink on Gleason Road, and made the high school team after only his fifth year on skates.

“Most everyone in Minnesota starts playing at age 4 or 5,” said Burke, who was the general manager in Anaheim when the Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup. “So it took a lot of catching up . . . and I never quite caught up, and that’s why I wasn’t a very good pro.”

Burke played two seasons of minor pro hockey before entering Harvard Law School, the latter becoming the foundation of his life in hockey administration.

Everyone honored at the Westin had their career paths nudged along, in any number of ways, by USA Hockey. It’s the game’s oft-unheralded governing body that usually first interfaces with kids as pre-schoolers and provides the opportunities that few think about as they make their way to where they’re going. Sometimes, to the highest reaches of the game.

“Especially, at least where I grew up in small-town northern Minnesota. It’s the only way they could do it,” said Langenbrunner. “It is not the most financially affluent area . . . a lot of hardworking farmers and millworkers . . . [USA Hockey] helped provide the opportunity and chance to play against top-level players.”

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It was a night to honor achievement, and also remember the journey.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com.