It's easy to pick apart a groundbreaking effort to stretch the boundaries of what some may say ought to confine a season-ending awards show for the greatest players in the world, of our favorite frozen game. Not being one who feels unendingly drawn to that plastic, wholly-artificial city in the desert, that reduces so many of the world's treasures to ugly replicas, I was skeptical of the decision to move the NHL Awards Show from a comfortable, traditional locale north of the border to one that is anathema to tradition (and to ice, though perhaps most any natural constraint can be managed in Las Vegas). But then I read and watched, during the events leading up to the main one last night, just how much the players seemed to be enjoying themselves there. And so I came around to applauding the move.
The name of the game is, of course, entertainment, and the Show capped a nice multi-day event, a reward for all of those who invested their physical, emotional, and financial resources into the endeavor of another successful season for hockey. And last night's shindig, particularly, and despite its make-believe backdrop, was a wonderful moment where players and family and friends and fans showed their humanity, in all of its awkward glory.
Even as a Gary Bettman-led league, time and again, seems to go to great lengths to fit our quirky, homespun game, played by mostly humble, self-effacing, charming, gracious, honest men, into the mold of other leagues more polished and choreographed for a mass audience (whether it be by altering the playoff structure to conference-wide seedings or insistence on keeping a failing franchise in the arid Southwest), this effort paid off. And in whatever detractors feel the league has now done to make its awards gala seem more like
those of other pro sports other awards shows popular in North America, its efforts wind up, paradoxically but refreshingly, revealing the character and humility of the players, and just how unique hockey culture really is. (Heck, even Bettman himself showed a little humanity, suggesting that the podium be made shorter for him.)
I loved Ron MacLean's direction of last year's program in Toronto, and he was dearly missed this time around. But while Jeremy Roenick may have stumbled through some lines in his on-the-fly MC duties, his delivery seemed almost as heartfelt and natural as that great hockey bard of Canada. Who cares if he said "Fan Five" instead of "Fan Fav" by accident? How many times have you misplayed a public delivery, a speech or announcement or presentation, only to recover your form and see it through. That's life. It brought me closer to the players. Not so larger than life. And don't we want to feel connected? (For Caps fans, how can you not have been pleased to witness JR not quite able to get out his congratulations for the Pittsburgh Penguins?)
And how better to display what is wonderful about the game than to showcase true legends, like Igor Larionov, as award presenters, rather than hired celebs, cold actors with little vested interest. That the rough and, at times, inelegant delivery of the participants, or subdued mood of the audience, may not have quite fit with the ridiculous, over-the-top atmosphere of Sin City, to me, squarely evidences just how genuine was the show. To artificially inject gratuitous flash and mayhem into the hockey mix would be a tragedy, a real blandness and conformity. A race to the frenzied, mindless bottom.
So Denis Leary, undying standard-bearer for the hockey fan, commences the evening with an inspirational monologue. Excellent work as usual. And then Chaka Khan. Really? Yeah, really. What, do you want to listen to "The Hockey Song" for all eternity? I'm not ashamed to admit that, watching the photo montage of fans in the stands (one of which prominently featured Caps Nation in aching exuberance) and listening to "Through the Fire," my love the Caps was, strangely, at that moment, re-kindled again. Fans flamed.
"Through the fire, through whatever, come what may . . ." Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. Go ahead and laugh! Watching the Penguins win the Cup, watching them defeat our heroes along the way, for the seventh time in eight playoff meetings, worked toward stamping out that fire. Despondency took firm hold.
Mirtle recently analyzed the likelihood of an individual player winning a Stanley Cup championship in his hockey career. And I've wondered whether I'll ever be part of the even lower percentage of hockey fans who enjoy at least one Cup victory in their "fan careers." The beginnings of the 2008-09 brought unprecedented hope for Caps country. A legitimate opportunity for ultimate victory. Yet, evil prevailed again.
Speaking of which, that Ben Roethlisberger clip was jarring. Maybe it was the background in which the clip was filmed that brought me discomfort. Yeah, I'm sure that was it. Pittsburgh fans sure are starting to get spoiled. Even their city was recently voted as the most livable in America. Pool parties in Mario's backyard with the holy grail. Penguin players shamelessly cavorting. The horror of it all.
But watching last night's celebration, and listening to Alex Ovechkin's remarks after taking the Hart Trophy again, a mixture of fervent hope and guarantee for next season, listening to Caps supporters in the crowd shouting, cheering for him, louder than the cries of any other audience members that I could hear during the entire program, stoked the fire back to life. All is not lost, and all may still, soon, be obtained.
So thanks Alex, and the NHL, for a fine conclusion to the 2008-09 season.