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Big night for Russian hockey, big night for Chara Add to ...


Sidney Crosby, the face of the new NHL, didn't turn up last night for its signature event.

So it was left to his Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin to applaud politely as Alexander Ovechkin won his second consecutive Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player at the league's annual awards ceremony, held in Las Vegas for the first time.

The Washington Capitals star's victory - in the first year three Russian players were selected Hart finalists - was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Malkin didn't seem too disturbed by the result either; he won the trophy that mattered most to him six days earlier, when he and Crosby hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in their respective careers.

What did get Malkin animated was the prospect of going head-to-head against Crosby in February, during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

"I want to play against him again, because with national team, when we [were]younger, he beat me couple of times," Malkin said in his gradually improving English. "Now, we're couple years older and better, I want to beat him. It'll be fun."

So consider the gauntlet thrown down - with the Russian contingent massing to get ready for the Olympics, beginning with Ovechkin and Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk, who dominated the proceedings last night.

Ovechkin also won the Lester B. Pearson Award - the MVP as selected by the players - while Datsyuk took home his fourth consecutive Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct), as well as his second consecutive Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward.

For the Selke, Datsyuk edged Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Richards by a scant three points in the voting (945 to 942), even though Richards received more first-place ballots (61 to 55).

The greatest suspense probably revolved around the James Norris Memorial Trophy for best defenceman, where perennial winner Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings finished third behind the Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara and Mike Green of the Capitals.

Chara, a champion for the Right To Play international charity, had an exceptional year as the Bruins won the Eastern Conference regular-season title.

The 6-foot-9 product of Trencin, Slovakia, was the most unlikely of prospects when he arrived in Prince George to play in the WHL as a teenager after being chosen with the 56th choice of the 1996 NHL entry draft. No player of Chara's stature had ever played regularly in the NHL, let alone starred in the league, so he had long odds to overcome.

The 32-year-old blueliner gave a moving speech. Echoing comments made by Datsyuk, another long-shot prospect, Chara talked about the need for perseverance.

"I was never supposed to make it past juniors," he said. "I'd been cut by every team. ... It's amazing what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it."

"It was very tough for sure," Chara said later, remaining in a reflective mood. "Growing up, you start to play hockey for fun. You do it to kill some time and parents like to see their kids do something other than sitting at home, playing video games. To me, I found something in hockey that I really loved.

"Then, it gets to the point where only the better ones get chosen to go to the next level. In my case, it was harder because, when they saw someone who is really tall, they said, 'It's nice that you play hockey, but now, it's time to switch sports. You should quit, because nobody's that big playing hockey.'

"It was all these discouragements, but there was something about it that kept motivating me."

Chara talked about idolizing Lidstrom, calling him "such an icon. Every time, I'm around him, I'm nervous ... but I never stopped believing.

"Individual awards in team sports are good. Don't get me wrong. I'm really happy and I worked so hard to get it, but my ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup. ... That's the main trophy I want."

As expected, ceremony host city Las Vegas was well-received by the players collectively, many of whom were planning to celebrate with a night on the town.

Overall, last night belonged to the Russians.

Ovechkin and Malkin went to the stage together to receive the Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Art Ross trophies, respectively. Malkin made a respectable speech, to which Ovechkin said, with a laugh: "Geno, your English better than Pavel Datsyuk's English."

Ovechkin, Crosby's primary rival since they entered the league together four years ago, was his usual charming self.

"I'm proud for my country and for Russian hockey," he said. "We're going up. It's always fun when you have a chance to be No. 1."

The question of the day revolved around the host city and its suitability for a possible NHL franchise. Ovechkin was properly skeptical, citing travel, climate and lifestyle as possible obstacles.

"It's going to be hard for hockey players to live here," he said. "Every day, there's night life, lots of clubs. It's pretty hard for young guys, especially if you don't have wife or girlfriend, to live here. It's too dangerous."

So Ovechkin couldn't see himself playing in Vegas?

"No," he answered sweetly, "I have contract with Washington Capitals - 13 years. My owner is here and so is George [McPhee, the general manager who signed him to that contract] I hope next year, the Stanley Cup will be ours."


And the winner is ...

Las Vegas - The NHL announced its annual award winners last night at the Palms Casino Resort:

Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP) - Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Lester B. Pearson Award (MVP, selected by NHL players) - Ovechkin

James Norris Memorial Trophy (defenceman) - Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

Jack Adams Award (coach) - Claude Julien, Bruins

Frank J. Selke Trophy (defensive forward) - Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

Calder Memorial Trophy (rookie) - Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets

Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (gentlemanly conduct) - Datsyuk

Vézina Trophy (goaltender) - Tim Thomas, Bruins

Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (perseverance, dedication): Steve Sullivan, Nashville Predators

Mark Messier Leadership Award - Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames

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