In nearly 40 years, only three NHLers have been awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's top athlete – Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.
On Monday, Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price became the fourth, and the first goalie in the award's eight decades. It's a remarkable oversight in the country that invented the game.
Roughly 30 sports journalists from across the country choose the winner of the Lou Marsh. Most of the group gather in a boardroom at the Toronto Star, Marsh's old paper, and argue about it for a couple of hours. It's an exceedingly Canadian process in that voters are encouraged to nominate athletes they don't believe should win, but would be delighted to hear that their names were mentioned. Most of the chirping – and it is of a very gentle sort – concerns competitors on the fringes.
By necessity, it all gets confusingly apples and oranges. About an hour in, you've entered the full fog of war.
What's more impressive? Pole vaulting or high jumping? A world championship in an obscure sport or a top-10 finish in a more mainstream one? Can a team be considered? (I was among a small minority who at one point pumped for the Toronto Blue Jays to win as a Canadian entity, but that was shot down on a slippery-slope rationale.)
How many wins puts you over the top? And if you haven't won, can you be said to be the best in the country at anything?
(I topped my ballot with sprinter Andre De Grasse. Although he finished third in the world, I reasoned that only so many people on Earth have put on goalie pads and played that position with any rigour. That's the depth of Price's competition. Just about every one of seven billion of us can run. That's the depth of De Grasse's.)
These granular lines of questioning tend to lead back to amateur athletes (high jumper Derek Drouin, pole vaulter Shawn Barber, decathlete Damian Warner, et al) or ones making headway in sports Canadians do not traditionally dominate (baseball player Joey Votto, golfer Brooke Henderson, soccer player Kadeisha Buchanan, etc.).
What it always leaves out is hockey.
The point was made on Monday that Jonathan Toews will probably never be named the country's top athlete.
At 27, he's the captain of an NHL dynasty, a multiple gold medalist, a Conn Smythe winner and a lock for the Hall of Fame. He's the Mark Messier or Jean Beliveau of his generation – two other guys who never won.
Short of deciding to play with his feet instead of a stick, there's really nothing more Toews can do to impress us. But since he's not quite Crosby (or the one we're used to), Toews may always seem second best.
Were he the second best tennis player in the world, or second best golfer, we'd rename the award after him.
Familiarity doesn't quite breed contempt, but it creates a certain weariness. The level achieved by the best Canadians in the NHL is so consistently high, it's difficult to create distance from one player to the next.
Since that is so much easier with every other sportsman and woman, the eye tends to wander over to them.
That's how the Lou Marsh has been won four times by people who ride things that run for them (i.e. horse racing, equestrian, harness racing and auto racing).
Larry Walker famously quipped that he'd been beaten in 1997 "by a machine" after Jacques Villeneuve won. Everyone thought it was sour grapes, because it was. It didn't make Walker less right.
I'm sure every winner made sense in the moment and that all were deserving, but reading back down that list, there are some names that simply do not register.
And then you think to yourself, Gordie Howe didn't win this thing. Gordie Howe!
All this to say that whenever someone on skates who isn't lutzing or going in circles comes out on top, the stars have truly aligned.
Price's bonafides amounted to more than statistics and individual hardware.
First, he is indisputably the best in the world at what he does. Price is so good at being in the right spot to stop pucks, it often looks like he isn't trying very hard.
We can argue about whether the NHL goal needs to be enlarged, but if that should ever lead you to thinking that tending it is easy, bend down and touch your knees together on the floor. Now, get back up. And down. And up. And down. And …
Is the ambulance on its way, or would you just prefer to lie there for a few days until the pain fades?
That's what Price makes look more effortless than anyone alive.
No Canadian skater is as dominant on the open ice as Price is in net – largely because there are too many other Canadians nearly as good.
Second, Price plays for the right team. If he were posting the same numbers in Dallas or Nashville, would he have won on Monday? No chance. His honour speaks to all the other Canadiens goalies who could have won this award but didn't – Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, Jacques Plante, et al. It allowed voters to honour the tradition as well as the man.
Third, Price is nearly anonymous. He doesn't say anything interesting. Ever. He wears a mask to work. He is a quiet professional and an all-round decent guy – the ideal Canadian.
Were he a braying jackass or the sort given to oafish outbursts – not that there are many hockey players like that – he'd have been skipped over.
Price isn't just a very, very good player. He's the perfect one. He's both a throwback and the large, nimble netminder of the future. He's been both lucky and deserving.
Having chosen Carey Price as Canada's best athlete of 2015, the panel can now go back to ignoring hockey in favour of skiing or weightlifting or whatever.
It's not meritocratic, but it does at least seem very in keeping with the way the country carries itself.