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Hockey Combining NHL awards and expansion draft a disservice to winners

Right around the time Wayne Gretzky was handing Connor McDavid his first Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player Wednesday night, most people were still digesting what had happened minutes before.

As part of its annual awards celebration, the NHL also unveiled the list of 30 players selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 expansion draft. It looked like their version of Property Brothers, a Vegas roster reveal they teased out in bits and pieces that overshadowed the rest of the program, a big night for the Oilers, Leafs and Flames.

In addition to McDavid winning the Hart, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews won the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year; the Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship; while the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson controversially finished second in the close Norris Trophy balloting for top defenceman.

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Roster reveal: Golden Knights select team's first 30 players In Karlsson's case, the focus could have been on how he couldn't reel in the season-long leader in the Norris race, the San Jose Sharks' Brent Burns, over the final month of a remarkable turnaround season in Ottawa. Instead, the talk was all about how Ottawa lost Karlsson's regular defence partner, Marc Methot, to the Golden Knights as part of the expansion draft.

That's how the night unfolded. Expansion was the focal point. Everything else was an afterthought.

The NHL can get a lot of things wrong, but marketing generally isn't one of them. Except for that ill-conceived decision to skip the 2018 Olympics, they are usually right on top of any opportunity to promote the business of hockey. Here, they could have easily divided the awards gala and the expansion drafts into two separate compelling pieces of theatre – and gotten double the bang for their buck.

It would have been a simple matter to bunch all the award presentations together on one memorable night and give the deserving players their day in the spotlight. In fact, they did hand out a couple of trophies on Tuesday night, the less glamorous ones, the ones that celebrate the charity work that players such as Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets (King Clancy Memorial Trophy and Mark Messier Leadership Award) and Travis Hamonic of the New York Islanders (the NHL Foundation Player Award) do so well.

But instead of having the usual stand-alone ceremony, the award winners had to share the moment with the expansion draft, a fascinating and distracting churning of NHL rosters that had even casual fans wondering how the Vegas choice would impact their favourite teams' rosters.

Altogether, Gretzky won nine Hart trophies in his career. It stands to reason that, eventually, some of those victories started to blur after a while. If McDavid does something similar, then the fact that he wasn't front and centre Wednesday night might matter less.

But what if he doesn't? Sidney Crosby, the player McDavid is most frequently compared to these days, also won the Hart trophy in his second full NHL season, 2007. But because of injuries – and the fact that there are a lot of other great players in the NHL – Crosby didn't win his second MVP award until 2014. It took seven years.

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It probably wasn't a big deal to McDavid, because he is notoriously uncomfortable when he's pushed in front of the cameras anyway. He started off the night winning the Ted Lindsay Award, the league MVP as selected by his peers. That matters. He was chosen as the EA Sports NHL 18 cover athlete, which, to the gaming generation, probably matters, too.

But the Hart Trophy is the jewel among all the NHL's individual hardware and McDavid's acceptance speech came as everyone congregated around the new face of the Vegas franchise, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

For those who stayed tuned, McDavid's speech was about what you'd expect. Modest to the fault, he thanked his parents, his teammates, the fans and the people who pay his salary. That was it. There was no danger that an orchestra needed to play him off the stage the way they do dozens of times per night at the Oscars. McDavid was racing for the exit as soon as it was politely viable to do so.

Sometimes, you long for the days when the Mark Messiers or Eric Lindroses were so genuinely overcome by an awards win that it showed in their passion and body language and tears. Even if sharing the spotlight with the Golden Knights didn't matter to McDavid, it should have mattered to the NHL, which had an opportunity to celebrate a pretty extraordinary crop of award winners from the 2016-17 season – and decided it wasn't worth a stand-alone show to honour them all.

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