On Renaming League Awards


The National Basketball Association announced new names for many of its individual player awards on Tuesday, (re-)sparking discussion about whether the National Hockey League should do the same.

I have complicated feelings about this, largely driven by having absolutely no faith in NHL leadership to get it right, if they did decide to change award names.  Commissioner Gary Bettman lies to media and fans regularly to defend awful decisions (today he declared that the digital dasher board advertisements that sometimes obscure players or the puck are actually preferred by fans according to their focus groups), I have no doubt the same would happen in this case.

Getting behind award name changes feels like asking for the SimpliSafe Top Goaltender Award.  The BetMGM Wayne Gretzky Change the Game Award.

That said, there are absolutely people who currently have their names attached to NHL awards who shouldn’t.  Conn Smythe was a racist.  Edward VIII, who donated the Prince of Wales Trophy when he held that title, was a Nazi sympathizer.  The Presidents’ Trophy exists in a league that doesn’t even have a President anymore.

I generally view the trophy names as an opportunity to teach history.  We don’t need to promote Smythe or the Prince of Wales but we can teach about Jack Adams or Frank Selke.

That’s the big difference between what the NBA did and what the NHL would be doing.  The new names applied to the NBA’s awards mostly replace generic names.  Until today, the Wilt Chamberlain Trophy was simply the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.  They attached a historical name where there wasn’t one already.

Maybe some of the names on NHL trophies aren’t as iconic as they could be.  Maybe I’m wrong and it’s not worth teaching about Selke or Calder or a bunch of other seemingly-random team executives; maybe they’re only notable because they were around long enough ago to get their names on trophies when they were first introduced and there were no better options.

Wyshynski suggests putting Boston Bruins’ forward Patrice Bergeron’s name on the Best Defensive Forward award, currently carrying Selke’s name.  Bergeron has won it five times, more than any other player.  I don’t like that logic.  With 100+ years of NHL history to work with, I find it hard to believe that person most-deserving of the honor just happens to be an active player.  Additionally, if someone comes up and rattles off six wins in a row starting this year, is the precedent set that now the trophy should be named after him?  I don’t trust the league to not screw it up.

The NHL Players’ Association almost got it right in 2010.  Prior to that year, their award for Most Outstanding Player was named after Canadian statesman and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Lester B. Pearson.  Unlike many of the older league awards, Pearson did not donate this trophy, the criteria for it being named after him were that he was famous and he coached hockey at the University of Toronto.

In 2010, the NHLPA decided that their award would be named after legendary forward Ted Lindsay, a leader in the early attempt to form a players’ union.  They designed a new trophy – including a statuette of Lindsay himself – called it the Ted Lindsay Award, and…  Engraved the names of the 38 winners of the Lester B. Pearson Trophy on the side.

Alex Ovechkin did not win the Ted Lindsay Award in 2008.  The Ted Lindsay Award did not exist in 2008.  But we get that revisionist history nonetheless.  Rename the Art Ross Trophy after Gordie Howe and I guarantee someone will say that Gordie Howe won the Gordie Howe Trophy in 1953, no matter how ridiculous it sounds.

There needs to be a clean break.  The Conn Smythe Trophy existed.  And then we got smart and minted a new award with a better name and people started winning that instead.

I’m not against changing award names, in that format.  Some of them absolutely should be changed.  Name one after Howe and Bettman can finally deliver on the “special and enduring and permanent” recognition he promised upon Howe’s death.  Bring back the O’Brien Trophy and the founding owner of the Montreal Canadiens can be honored.  There’s opportunity here.

If the league chooses to take that opportunity, though, I don’t expect them to get it right.

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