With the regular season ending on Sunday and the playoffs starting a week from Wednesday, we’re now just days away from that special time of year when the pressure ramps up, every decision becomes crucial, and the very best of the best find a way to defy the odds and come through when they’re needed most.
I’m referring, of course, to the media handing in our awards ballots.
This year is a particularly tricky one for members of the PHWA, the writers’ association that votes on most of the awards. You’ve got the ongoing Drew Doughty vs. Erik Karlsson debate over the Norris Trophy, one that’s been waging for weeks and by this point would probably need to be settled by pistols at dawn if sportswriters ever woke up that early. There’s an especially deep field of rookies for the Calder. And even the Hart, which once looked like a lock for Patrick Kane, is facing a late charge by Sidney Crosby that could earn him some last-minute ballots.
We don’t know how the voting will turn out, but we do know this: Somebody somewhere is going to hate it, and they’re going to let us know that we’re all idiots. Whether it’s the poor soul who has Doughty third, or leaves Dylan Larkin off a ballot, or wastes a Selke vote on a player who you once saw commit a turnover, we know we’ll hear about it. Worst vote ever, you idiot.
But in the calm before that storm, let’s take a moment to remember that there’s a long history of truly weird awards ballots being cast. We’re not talking about having a guy a spot higher or lower than consensus or honoring a player whose great season ended up being a one-hit wonder – we’re talking truly outside-the-box picks, the kind of votes that cause a record scratch sound effect to play in the background when they’re first read.
So before you go off on some poor, hard-working, slightly overweight, balding, ill-mannered, unwashed [Editor’s note: That’s enough.] sportswriter for a vote you disagree with, remember – the bar has been set pretty high.
Here are five of the stranger votes cast for major NHL awards over the years, and the logic that was likely behind them at the time.
Sean Burke, 1988
There’s been plenty of debate this year about Connor McDavid’s case for the Calder Trophy. Do you give him your vote, even though he’ll only finish with 45 games played? He’s been great, sure, but doesn’t a major award require a full season’s work? It’s a tough call.
But what if we were talking about the Hart instead of the Calder? And what if the we had a candidate who’d only appeared in a quarter of McDavid’s games, because he didn’t even arrive in the NHL until March?
That’s the situation voters found themselves in when assessing Sean Burke’s 1987-88 season, in which he appeared in just 13 games for the Devils. And at least one voter figured that was enough, as Burke received a third place vote for both the Calder and Hart.
It’s not actually all that crazy when you remember that Devils’ 87-88 season. That was the year the team went on a late-season tear to earn the first playoff berth in franchise history with a dramatic overtime win on the season’s final day. Burke was a big part of that, making his NHL debut on March 2 and going 10-1 during the Devils’ frantic push. If you’re going to lean heavily on the “value” part of “most valuable”, you could make the case for tossing him a vote.
For what it’s worth, 27 years later, Andrew Hammond would get some voter love of his own based on 24 games. What can you say, some guys are just workaholics.
Scott Howson, 2013
The lockout-shortened 2013 season was an, um, interesting one for award voting. In fact, given the recent PHWA push toward transparency, it may even be remembered as the last great year of completely off-the-board balloting. Not everyone was impressed, but the voters certainly kept things interesting.
For example, you had Blackhawks’ backup Ray Emery, who started 19 games in support of starter Corey Crawford. He put up strong numbers, ones that were comparable to Crawford’s, and one voter apparently felt that warranted a first-place vote for the Vezina. Imagine if Emery had been starting.
But with all due respect to Emery, the strangest name to show up on the voting list in 2013 was Scott Howson’s. He received a pair of third place votes for GM of the Year, good enough to finish 11th in the balloting. That doesn’t sound all that odd; Howson is a bright guy who’s pulled off some savvy moves in his time. But there was one minor problem with his GM of the Year candidacy in this particular season: He’d been fired just a few weeks after it began.
The GM award is primarily voted on by the league’s GMs, so we may never know exactly what those two voters were thinking. Maybe it was recognition of Howson’s work on the previous summer’s Rick Nash trade. Or maybe it was just a sympathy vote for a fallen comrade. Either way, it left Howson ahead of Greg Sherman, whose Avalanche finished dead last in the West. He only managed one third place vote.
Sergei Fedorov, 1996
OK, let’s just cop to the obvious: the PHWA has struggled a bit over the years with getting players’ positions right when it comes to all-star voting. The most obvious example was in 2013, when Alexander Ovechkin was honored at both left and right wing, an obvious screw-up that was widely seen as a “debacle.”
But while there was no excuse for the Ovechkin mess, nailing down a player’s “real” position really is more complicated than it sounds. The NHL’s official listings are often wrong, and some players really do shift around as the season wears on – sometimes even in the same game. These days, the issue can usually be cleared up by a simple Google search, but decades ago it wasn’t so easy. If you were a beat writer who happened to be covering a visiting superstar on a night when he wasn’t playing in his usual spot, you could be forgiven for some confusion.
And so, not surprisingly, the all-star voting records are filled with guys receiving votes at multiple positions. But my favorite came in 1996, when Fedorov managed the rare feat of getting votes at three positions. He was exactly the sort of player that can mess with voters, a natural center who’d occasionally shift to the wing to light it up with Steve Yzerman. Heck, he even spent some time on the blueline that year. Maybe we’re lucky he didn’t get any votes at defense.
But he did get votes at all three forward spots. And to make things even odder, Fedorov’s name appeared on 12 of the 52 ballots in 1996, ten of which correctly listed him as a center. But none of those was a first place vote. By contrast, the two voters who listed Fedorov as a winger each had him as the top guy on their ballot (one each at right and left wing).
That made Fedorov one of the few players – OK, probably the only player – to be able to claim he finished in the top six in all-star voting at three positions in the same season.
Chico Resch, 1983
I’m not sure what it was about Devils’ goalies in the 1980s, but five years before Burke’s late-season run, another New Jersey netminder had his name show up on Hart ballots. Which was odd, because his numbers say he wasn’t all that good that year.
To be clear, at his peak, Glenn “Chico” Resch was a very good goaltender indeed, right up there among the best in the league. But that peak had come in the 70s, when he was backstopping the Islanders and earned a pair of second-team all-star nods. Then a late-season trade in 1981 sent him to the Colorado Rockies, and they were the worst team in the league.
Resch held the fort as best he could, but he got shelled, with his goals-against average topping 4.00 in his first full year in Colorado. Voters recognized him with the Masterton, which seemed fair: Resch display extraordinary perseverance and dedication just by continuing to show up at the rink every day. In 1982 the team moved to New Jersey, where Resch continued to (as Don Cherry would say) see more rubber than a dead skunk on the Trans-Canada Highway. He started 65 games, won just 15, and posted a 3.98 GAA, the 26th best mark in a league with 21 teams.
That was apparently an MVP performance, at least according to two writers who punched Resch’s name on their Hart ballot. You could call it a pity vote, or you could call it a case of looking beyond the numbers to reward a guy who was facing a firing squad every night. Either way, they were the only Hart votes of Resch’s career, and made him one of only two goaltenders to get Hart votes that season. The other, runner-up Pete Peeters, narrowly edged out Resch with a GAA that was just 1.62 lower.
Marty McSorley, 1991
You probably remember McSorley as a notorious enforcer, one who could often be found nearby whenever some unfortunate soul briefly considered making eye contact with Wayne Gretzky. But in his day, he was a pretty darn solid defenseman, one who could play a regular shift and even scored over 100 goals in his NHL career.
So the fact that he once received a vote for an individual award shouldn’t come as a complete shock. But the award itself might: In 1991, he got a third place vote for the… Selke?
Yep. A natural defenseman who spent most of his career at the position, McSorley earned his only vote for an award given exclusively to forwards. In 1991, he finished tied with future-winners Fedorov and Ron Francis.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds, since McSorley did move up to the wing from time to time in his career, usually in a checking line role. But this feels like a brilliant idea that’s been sitting right under our noses for years. The Selke’s already the hardest award to get any sort of consensus on because nobody’s quite sure how best to define defensive ability; why not just go all the way and start voting for defenseman? As long as they’ve worked in a few shifts up front, we’re all clear.
Brent Burns, dark horse Norris candidate? No. Brent Burns, dark horse Selke candidate. Where’s my ballot?
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.