LAS VEGAS -- Of course, the only word that applies is "absurd" in trying to explain how and why the NHL's Awards show is now staged in this city every year. Months of struggle and work by still mostly small-town prairie boys ends with a coronation in the most garish, un-hockey place on earth: Las Vegas.
The most self-conscious of all major sports, its players taught to never attract the spotlight to themselves, somehow takes its final bow in a place of outlandish, outsized neon self-promotion.
The place where Liberace flaunted his jeweled coat, where Elvis did karate chops in white bell-bottoms, where Mike Tyson once partially bit off a man's ear -- this is where the painfully shy Evgeni Malkin fumbled through his Hart Trophy acceptance speech as the NHL's most valuable player on Wednesday night at the Wynn casino.
Maybe it's not all that surprising though, really. Hockey people work so hard at staying humble 363 days a year in freezing cold rinks, maybe it's only natural that they'd want to put orange lampshades on their heads and slosh around blazing hot sidewalks with open containers for the other two days.
Much like this year's show -- from the baggy-eyed, flat opening monologue of Matthew Perry to the hysterical Brendan Shanahan impersonator sketches -- this whole Vegas hockey act works and ... doesn't.
First off, what worked:
• The hockey writers, most of them from beleaguered print outlets, still get to choose who wins the major trophies, and they got things right with the selection of Malkin as the Hart winner. The Penguins center earned it with a fabulous season for a franchise where he probably is still only the third-most popular center in town behind the owner, Mario Lemieux, and the kid, Sidney Crosby.
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• Ken Hitchcock got the Jack Adams Award as best coach, and as they say in hockey, boy was that bang-on. Hitch is the best quote in the sport, which is why reporters always crowd around him, but he's not a media show pony. The man simply loves to talk hockey, whether it's with a reporter from The New York Times or one from the Chippewa Falls Daily Bugle.
Hitchcock was, as always, great copy. He shocked everyone when, in his post-award chat with the press, he talked about how he watches "three or four hours" of the Palladium Channel every day to keep up with the younger generation. He's fascinated by Generation Y, he said, because they are "always asking why?", and because you always have to get them to "buy in to what you're trying to sell before they'll do anything for you."
When Hitchcock dedicated his award to his terminally-ill friend and former assistant coach, Wayne Fleming, it said a lot about his makeup as a human being.
• Steve Wynn, Mr. Vegas, owner of the stunningly opulent venue, was seen walking through the crowd after the show with a comely women on each arm and bodyguards in front and behind. That worked. Anybody who hadn't seen the Wynn and its coffee-colored twin building, the Encore, before this week came away with the same jaw-dropped look. Right down to the very last brightly colored, polished tile in the lobby, the entire Wynn-Encore property is an awe-inspiring creation of excellence.
Glasses of house Merlot cost $16 at the Wynn, and there are no comped drinks just for throwing a few bucks in the video poker machines at the bar. But when you're there, staring at all that surrounds you, you somehow don't mind paying those prices at all.
• Patrice Bergeron getting the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward, Henrik Lundqvist taking the Vezina as top goalie and Gabriel Landeskog bagging the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year -- that all made sense.
The fact that Lundqvist dropped the F-bomb on national TV after stumbling for words was another shocking moment of the night. But it was Vegas, baby. Who cares?
• Tracey Morgan's taped routine of life as an overly chatty New York Ranger. It brought the funny.
What didn't work:
• Erik Karlsson taking the Norris Trophy probably created the biggest gasp in the press room. The Ottawa defender was one of only three candidates, so how big a surprise could it have been? Plenty, judging by the reaction of the press, which seemed to think it would surely go to either Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara.
Karlsson clearly isn't the best defensive defenseman in the league, not by a long shot. But his gaudy point totals swayed enough voters to take the title. His selection is likely to create more of a debate among hockey's chattering class about the need for a new subset of trophy for defensemen -- the kind who are known for, you know, defense too.
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• John Tortorella's continued stick-in-the-mud routine. You'd think some fun in the sun of Vegas might bring about a more playful Torts with the press, just for kicks. But no. In an informal media session the day before the awards, one reporter, after some seemingly friendly banter, tried to ask the Rangers coach about how he'd gotten such a nice tan of late.
"I'm not going to get into my personal situation," he replied, filling the air with suddenly uncomfortable awkwardness.
It wasn't long before Tortorella simply got up out of his director's chair next to the pleasantly welcoming Hitchcock and Paul MacLean and walked out of the media session.
(Yet Torts was able to at least have a laugh at his expense during the show, when Eddie Olczyk brought up how much he looks like Fonzie from Happy Days, with an "Aaayyy" punchline).
• In the media room, the TVs somehow were off by a couple of seconds with the audio feeds. So it created a huge echo effect, as if Lou Gehrig was considering himself the luckiest man ... man ... on the face ... on the face .. of the earth ... earth with every sentence.
Nobody could make out much of anything that anybody said through the show. (For your information: no, the press isn't allowed inside the actual theater of the show. We are herded into the back rooms with the echoing TVs.)
As long as the NHL keeps harboring this seeming desire to get its glam face on, Las Vegas certainly makes more sense for an end-of-the-year gala than, say, Saskatoon. But it will always be just a little off seeing Ted Lindsay walk around the place of America's schmaltziest excess to hand out an award in his honor, or for Maurice Richard's memory to exalted in a place of four-foot green margarita tubes.
To the hockey purist making their first trip to Vegas, this must have been a true sign of the apocalypse, with Nickelback as the warmup act.
To the rest? Hey, the coolest game on earth felt great in 105-degree heat. They just clinked their $16 glasses of Merlot and called it a win-Wynn situation.