Some NHL awards stories qualify as better left unsaid
Top players will be easy to identify for trophy honours, but for Masterton nominees, the top pick isn’t as obvious
VANCOUVER — In the offices of the National Hockey League, operators are standing by to tabulate the ballots for this year’s major awards.
Having the franchise, we are repeatedly reminded, is a privilege, and voting is a serious task which deserves an honest effort at identifying the most deserving nominees, otherwise the entire hagiography of the sport is apt to be corrupted.
Above all, one must not be frivolous, which is why we here at Glass-Half-Empty, Inc. (GHEI) usually recuse ourselves from participating.
For one thing, we’re away somewhere on another assignment half the time, and for another, anyone who claims to have seen Sergei Bobrovsky tend the net for the Columbus Blue Jackets on a regular basis is either (a) lying, or (b) covering the team full-time and unable to escape, which lets out nearly 97 per cent of the voters.
It’s the same with John Tavares of the New York Islanders, whom the Centre Ice package nerds may watch intently at 3 a.m. on their fourth PVR’d game of the night, but whom the rest of us only sees on the highlights.
Is Tavares better than Bobrovsky? Is better even the criterion?
The wording for, say, the Hart Memorial Trophy is terse, the room for interpretation is vast.
The Hart, says the National Hockey League, is awarded annually “to the player judged most valuable to his team.” Simple. And complicated.
Not the best player, although he could be. Not the leading scorer, although that also is possible, even likely.
Most valuable, it seems reasonable to suggest, should be synonymous with “most indispensable,” as determined by asking the question: “Where would Player X’s team be without him?”
If the answer is “Nowhere,” that’s a pretty good sign that Player X is a strong Hart candidate.
Which is why Sidney Crosby probably doesn’t win this season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are 8-4 since he went down one shift into a game March 30. They had a seven-game winning streak earlier this month. Where would the Penguins be without Sid? Well, for the short term, it appears, just fine.
Is he the league’s best player? Most would say so. Did it take much of the month of April for anyone to catch him in the scoring race? Yes, it did.
Therefore, it can’t only be about that.
Where would be the Washington Capitals be without Alex Ovechkin? Well, thanks to the man himself, we already know the answer. When they were 7-10-2 at the end of February, Ovechkin had eight goals and 15 points. Since March 1, he has 24 goals and 39 points, and the Caps have gone 19-8-1, including 10-1-1 in April.
Does he get a pass for all those ordinary outings in the first month-and-a-half?
Better than that. In the “most valuable” calculation, that early-season nap actually strengthens his case.
But now it gets sticky.
Where would the playoff-bound Islanders be without Tavares’s point per game on a team that had already been abandoned to a future in Brooklyn, when it suddenly got relevant? Where would the Blue Jackets be without Bobrovsky and his .931 save percentage on a team that was less a hockey club than a punch line coming into the season but was still in the playoff hunt with one game left?
And what of the best team in hockey this season, the Chicago Blackhawks? Surely they have an MVP candidate. Captain Jonathan Toews would be the first choice of many as the player you would want to build a team around, but where’s the statistical backing? He’s among a raft of point-a-game players in the NHL this year, although he’s right at the top of the plus-minus ratings at +28 (yes, we know, it’s an old-fashioned standard, much inferior to advanced stats). It’s all very confusing.
The one award vote that cannot be evaded, apparently, is for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is sort of a sacred duty of each chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Attempts to shirk the responsibility were unsuccessful, so GHEI added its vote to the mob that was in favour of defenceman Kevin Bieksa as the Canucks’ nominee — and happily so.
But no NHL award has more latitude for creative voting than the Masterton, which goes to “the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”
Statistics go out the window. This is about courage and discipline and goodness. And it’s not just about who came back the best from the worst injury, though it sometimes seems that way.
This year’s list of nominees, as you might expect if you’ve followed the news the last three or four seasons, is rife with players who have endured the long battle back from concussions: Sidney Crosby, Marc Staal, Marian Hossa, James Reimer, Peter Mueller, Adam McQuaid, Patrick Eaves, Jochen Hecht and Radek Martinek.
These automatically outrank broken foot (Ray Whitney), fractured pelvis (Tom Poti), hip surgery (Dan Ellis, Steve Begin), advancing age (Ryan Smyth), general joie de vivre (Vinny Prospal), second-stringiness (Jonathan Bernier), lack of size (Stephen Gionta), and willingness to fight for teammates (B, J. Crombeen) or the NHLPA (Ron Hainsey), etc.
Some stories stand out a mile: Shane Doan’s admirable dedication to Phoenix and family; Minnesota goalie Josh Harding’s perseverance through advancing symptoms of multiple sclerosis; Montreal defenceman Andre Markov’s inspirational return after playing only 65 games over three seasons and undergoing two reconstructive knee surgeries.
The blurbs that the scribes provide for their nominees are occasionally humorous, not intentionally. For instance, the San Jose chapter put forward James Sheppard, who “needed more than two years and a fresh start with a new franchise to work his way back to the NHL after tearing up his left knee in an off-season ATV accident while training in Colorado. Clouds of dust prevented him from seeing an oncoming vehicle, forcing him to veer off the road.”
Driving an All-Terrain Vehicle is training?
Does anyone remember if Erik Johnson was a Masterton nominee the year he tore his knee up when he got his foot caught between the brake and accelerator pedals on a golf cart?
Never mind. All pale by comparison to the uplifting story of Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, who “in the summer of 2006 was at a bachelor party in Finland when he was a victim of an assault by a pizzeria owner. The assailant fired pepper spray into Rinne’s eyes and tackled him. Rinne had to undergo shoulder surgery, which kept him out four months. Rinne battled back from the injury and the mental scarring of the incident to become an NHL regular in 2008-09.”
Now, really. Who’s going to beat that? He can’t even look at a pizza the same way any more.
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