Gordie Howe accepts his lifetime achievement award during the 2008 NHL Awards. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images for NHL)
It’s not fashionable to praise the NHL, but I’ve rarely been accused of having good sartorial sense, so here it is: the league we often love to bash is on a pretty decent run (a few ownership messes notwithstanding).
The 2007-08 regular season was solid, the playoffs highly entertaining and the final, particularly Game 5, was brilliant. TV ratings in the U.S. edged their way back to respectability and there’s a slew of young, exciting talent in the process of picking up the proverbial torch and sprinting with it.
“We’ve got some momentum,” is the way NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly described it to me at the awards gala in Toronto Thursday.
As for the awards event, it did its part in pushing the puck up ice, demonstrating again no big-time sports league does as good a job honoring its own as the NHL.
From a red carpet stroll that made the stars accessible to autograph seekers, to a show that humanized the players and legends of the game we admire, the night was a success.
Everyone’s favorite moment was Gordie Howe’s lifetime achievement award speech. At 80, Howe is folksy-elegant, still sharp-minded and very gracious. He has an aura that makes hockey fans proud to say they’re hockey fans.
We had the privilege of a Howe visit to The Hockey News offices a couple years ago and were amazed at his still remarkable strength, his extra large hands and iron-vice handshake grip. He regaled us with several funny stories, posed for umpteen photos and was sure to throw his trademark elbow into nearly every frame.
He remains a treasure for hockey on both sides of the border and it was warming to see him treated befittingly on Thursday.
A few other observations from the gala:
• Ron MacLean and Craig Simpson did nice jobs as co-hosts. MacLean, in particular, is a real pro on stage, looking comfortable and natural, ad-libbing much of the time.
• Pavel Datsyuk’s sense of humor shone through despite an obvious language barrier. After picking up his first of two awards on the night he quipped (and we’re paraphrasing because we didn’t take notes in the audience), “I would have liked to make my speech long, but my English is short.” After award No. 2, having used “all” his material the first time, he added, “I’ve got nothing.”
• If Patrick Kane continues his expected growth on the ice, he’ll be a leading face for the game in a few years. His onstage presence displayed a comfort level and personality that will help sell hockey.
• Simpson zinged a ‘tween when, after asking him his age, the youngster said, “I’m 12, going on 13.” To which Simpson deadpanned, “That’s usually how it works.” Ouch.
• Some seemed surprised when Martin Brodeur won the Vezina over Evgeni Nabokov; the two finished in inverse order in all-star balloting. Why the difference? The 30 GMs vote for the Vezina; the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association picks the all-stars.
• Speaking of all-stars, the league and the writers association should investigate a standard list of players-by-position from which voters could work. As it stands, we run the risk of a player missing out on an all-star nod if his vote is split between two positions. It nearly happened this year with Datsyuk. The Wings’ forward finished third among centers with 267 voting points; he received nine more as a left winger. That aggregate total of 276 falls just short of second-team center Joe Thornton’s total of 282.
Jason Kay is the editor of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog normally appears every weekend.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.