'It's just that little acknowledgment': NHLers embrace unique MVP awards

The hard hat is a classic and wrestling belts are en vogue.

Among the various items NHL teams use to celebrate their top performers, though, the Ottawa Senators are unique.

The team started the campaign with a more traditional talisman — a giant chain with the Sens' logo — but now honour one another by passing around a pair of royal blue goggles meant to be worn during a spray tan.

“We did a little shootout before one of the road trips and the loser had to get a spray tan. Nick Holden ended up losing, but I might have let (Jake) Sanderson score just so Holden had to be the one to do it," explained goalie Cam Talbot.

"The chain we had to start the season wasn’t really working out for us, so we had to ditch that and find a new juju kind of thing. And once we brought the goggles from the spray tan in, we started turning things around.”

After each victory, the reigning player of the game chooses his successor and, with a short explanation, hands over the coveted prize.

"Guys put on the goggles, say a speech and then leave them in their stall until it’s time to give them to the next guy," said Sens captain Brady Tkachuk. "Some guys are definitely nervous when they stand up the first time, but it’s a great thing. It’s one of those things that lets guys have special moments or create memories with each other."

Performing the speech can be intimidating, said Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat, whose team doles out a wrestling belt to their current MVP.

“You’ve got that all the cameras on so it's a little challenging. But you can have fun with it," he said. "Most of the guys like to keep it short so they can get out of the room and get some food in them or whatever.”

Post-win awards are a tradition that's spread to many locker rooms around the league.

The Seattle Kraken use Davy Jones's pirate hat to mark an outstanding performance, while the Winnipeg Jets hand out a pair of leather jackets with Canada flag patches, including one for the unsung player of the night.

Inspired by the Toronto Raptors 2019 championship, the Maple Leafs used a basketball for their player-of-the-game award during the 2019-20 season.

Now the club has turned to another symbol: an authentic WWE wrestling belt. Canadian wrestler Edge gifted the hefty accessory, complete with the Leafs' logo, to defenceman Morgan Rielly last summer.

It's important for the team to recognize one another, the veteran blue liner said.

"It's easy to be in a routine, you play 82 games, hopefully, you're winning more than half of those," Rielly said.

"It's a nice way for the team to have something at the end of the night to acknowledge a guy that had a special effort, you know? Not always the guy that scored the most goals, but did something that would help the team."

The play that gets a guy accolades from his teammates may not be the same highlight that leads TV sportscasts, said Canucks defenceman Luke Schenn.

“It doesn't always have to be the guy that scores the big goal or the guy that makes the big save. Sometimes it's the fourth line guy having a big shift or some guys blocking shots or whatever," he said.

"It's just that little acknowledgment and appreciation amongst each other in the dressing room.”

GOALS GOALS GOALS

NHLers scored at an impressive clip in 2022. The league says there were 8,984 regular-season goals (including 97 shootout-deciding goals) across 1,403 games last year, the most in a calendar year in the NHL's history.

BARZAL ON BEDARD

Teen phenom Connor Bedard has turned jaws slack with his outstanding play at the world junior hockey championship and one NHL star says the Canadian sensation's play is nothing new.

New York Islanders centre Matt Barzal remembers getting his first glimpse of Bedard at a summer skate near Vancouver a few years ago.

“He would have been 12, I think, and kind of like wearing a cage and skates looked a little too big," Barzal said. "And then we came back the next summer and he was beating NHL goalies with his shot. It was like, 'Kid's the real deal.'

"So it's been really cool to actually see his progression. He just seems to get better every year I go back home so it's going to be fun to see him in the league next year.”

Barzal said he sent the 17-year-old native of North Vancouver, B.C., a text Monday after Bedard scored an impressive overtime winner against Slovakia in the quarterfinals.

"I just told him how special it was, so I'm rooting for him," Barzal said. "He's a kid that it's easy to root for. He's down to earth, we have good banter. He's a special player and he's a great kid so I think we're going to be buddies for a long time.”

— With files from Lisa Wallace in Ottawa, and John Chidley-Hill and Tim Wharnsby in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2023.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press