LAS VEGAS – If you’re going to throw an event in one of North America’s most notorious party cities – a place where famous-people spotting is a sport unto itself – you best have the celebrities to back it up. While the star power of the presenters and entertainment was debatable, a who’s who of on-ice talent made the 2009 NHL Awards a true treat for the nearly 2200 fans in attendance at the Pearl Concert Theater at the Palms hotel and casino and countless more who lined up for a glimpse on the red carpet.
The hardware distribution went as most – including this pundit – thought it would with Alex Ovechkin capturing his second Hart Trophy; Zdeno Chara his first Norris; Tim Thomas the Vezina; Steve Mason the Calder; Pavel Datsyuk the Lady Byng and Selke; Claude Julien the Jack Adams; and Steve Sullivan the Masterton.
The awards ceremony isn’t about the expected, however, it’s about experiencing NHLers outside of their element, in a venue where even the losers are just happy to be there and people from either side of the glass express positives and personality (a pleasant respite from bases famous for negativity and the banal).
Leading the charge of largely cliché-free speech was Thomas, whose candor and emotion during his speech was equaled only by outstanding play this season.
"I never allowed myself to think I might win," Thomas said. "All those names on the trophy; it seemed like such a faraway dream.
"I have been more worried about getting my name on a roster than winning the Vezina Trophy."
Whether using Sin City as the backdrop for the awards ceremony was successful in providing additional exposure to a league that seems intent on growing into atypical markets will be a point of contention over the next weeks. There was a buzz around the hotel in the hours leading up to the spectacle, but, as Jason Kay explored in his blog, the reach, in the city itself at least, was cursory.
But even the players realize a major reason for holding an event like this in a locale where ice is used almost exclusively for drinks isn’t about drawing in the locals, but rather about overall brand awareness due to the spectacle.
“If you’re going to try to take the game to a new level, what better place than Vegas,” Blackhawks rookie Kris Versteeg, a Calder trophy nominee, told THN.com. “It’s the best marketing place in the world; they have the advertising exactly right. The league has to go places where people are going to watch if they’re going make strides towards making the league better and make it more well-known.”
Alas, there’s a large part of me that doesn’t care whether one new set of eyes was turned on to the NHL. The awards, much like the NFL’s post-season Pro Bowl, should be a pat on the back to the nominees and others in attendance who deserve a couple of days in a place they can enjoy themselves – with no disrespect meant towards my hometown of Toronto – either alone or with their friends and family.
In that sense, the 2009 NHL Awards in Vegas was a resounding success.
Other observations from Wednesday and Thursday in Las Vegas:
• Maybe hockey isn’t on the radar for most locals, but there are some tried and true puck fans scattered through the ranks. I met one on a cab ride during the first day in Vegas. Our driver was a medically discharged war veteran who seemed pleased to find someone with whom he could share memories of the Las Vegas Thunder of the defunct International League.
The very knowledgeable wheelman was able to recite all four lines from the full year Radek Bonk spent with the club in ’93-94 and reminisced over the days when Chris McSorely, who coached the team for three seasons in the mid-‘90s, would bring in his brother Marty, to teach the club the finer points of pugilism.
With all due respect to my traveling companions, it was the most fascinating conversation of the trip and made me wonder if there are 20,000 more like him who could buoy a team in this market.
• With the NHL holding the awards here for the next two years, one wonders what impact a potential trip to Vegas will have on the on-ice product.
“Maybe it makes a couple players work a little harder,” joked Versteeg.
Humor aside, one thing is certain: players aren’t going to skip the trip based on the location.
“Coming to a place like Las Vegas at the end of the season, you’re not going to have too many guys decline,” said Versteeg. “Everyone wants to come here; not just the young guys, but the old guys who can bring their families to hang around and see the sights.”
• The presence of CBC’s Ron McLean, along with his wit and professionalism, was sorely missed.
• You could say the 2009 award belonged to the bears: seven of the 10 major awards were won either by Russians or Bruins.
ONE ON ONE WITH TIM THOMAS
THN's Ken Campbell talks to the Vezina Trophy winner after the awards.
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Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog normally appears Thursdays.
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