It’s awards week in Major League Baseball. The sport doesn’t handle their honours the way hockey does; there’s no cheesy Vegas ceremony, with B-list celebrities and awkward acceptance speeches. Instead, we just get a series of announcements throughout the week, with each day bringing new winners.
That’s winners, plural, which is the other key difference from the NHL. Baseball gives out separate awards to both the American and National Leagues, meaning that twice as many players get to win an MVP, Cy Young, or Rookie of the Year every season.
That seems like a small difference, but it’s really not. Post-season awards (or a lack thereof) can change our entire perception of a player’s legacy, so baseball having twice as many as other sports is a big deal. It’s why Alex Rodriquez and Albert Pujols can both claim to be three-time MVPs – voters didn’t have to choose between them in 2005, when they both won. Instead of voters having to choose between Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson at their peak, they could just both win the Cy Young. Same with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout for the Rookie of the Year in 2012.
Baseball has its reasons for handling awards that way. But what if the NHL did the same? How would hockey history look different if the sport gave out awards to the top vote-getter in each conference?
We’ll never know for sure, but we can dig into the voting history (via hockey-reference.com) to figure out which players might have more hardware on their shelves in an alternate universe where hockey had decided to follow baseball’s lead. For sake of argument, we’ll assume that the leading vote-getter from each conference would have won. That’s probably not entirely true, since voters would have been looking at their ballots differently, but it gives us a guide.
So how does hockey history look different if we split the awards based on conference? Nothing changes until the Original Six era ends in 1967, of course, but then things start to get weird.
For obvious reasons, this is the one award that doesn’t produce any multiple-time winners. But we do get to add “Rookie of the Year” to the resumes of a long list of players, including current names like Shayne Gostisbehere, Johnny Gaudreau, Logan Couture and Dion Phaneuf. A few of today’s most-respected veterans pick up some extra hardware as well, including Marian Hossa (1999), Jarome Iginla (1997), and the technically still-active Pavel Datsyuk (2002).
Digging a little deeper, a few of today’s borderline Hall of Fame cases would get some help, as Mark Recchi (1990) and Paul Kariya (1995) both earn Calders. So do a few players who are already enshrined at the Hall, like Phil Housley (1983) and Steve Yzerman (1984).
Some team histories start to look different, too. In the real world, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are all trying to become the first Maple Leaf to win a Calder Trophy since Brit Selby in 1966. But split the award by conference and the Leafs add two more wins – Wendel Clark in 1985 and Mike Palmateer in 1977.
And we even get to honour a current coach and GM, as Darryl Sutter (1981) and Ron Hextall (1987) earn trophies. That news would surely put a smile on their faces, if either of them were capable of that.
But with all due respect to our various new Calder winners, things don’t start to get truly strange until we move on to some of the other awards.
Without question, the most important fallout from splitting the Norris is that the great Erik Karlsson vs. Drew Doughty War never happens. In this alternate universe, they’ve both won two in a row, and the old school and stats guys have to find something else to fight over endlessly. I’m sure they’ll manage.
Among active players, the big boost here is Zdeno Chara, who becomes a five-time winner thanks to additional trophies in 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2014. A few veteran stars get their first Norris, as Ryan Suter (2013) and Shea Weber (2012) each take home a win. So does Mike Green, whose big 2010 season earns him some hardware.
Going back a bit further, Sergei Gonchar checks in with back-to-back wins in 2002 and 2003; in the real world, he wasn’t even a finalist either time, finishing well back of winner Nicklas Lidstrom and other Western blueliners. Speaking of Lidstrom, he only picks up one additional Norris, for 2009, good enough to tie him with Bobby Orr as an eight-time winner in our world.
Housley adds one in 1992 to go with his new Calder, and names like Gary Suter (1988), Vladimir Konstantinov (1997) and Eric Desjardins (2000) also get to join the Norris club.
But many of our new honours end up going to the position’s all-time greats. Scott Stevens somehow never won a Norris in the real world, but in ours he gets two (1998 and 2001). Al MacInnis adds four, including three straight from 1989 to 1991. Paul Coffey picks up two more of his own (1984 and 1987), as does Brad Park (1976 and 1978). And Denis Potvin is now a six-time winner, adding the 1977, 1979 and 1981 trophies to his lifetime haul.
But one of the biggest winners from our new system is a name you may not even recognize: Bill White. He was a longtime Blackhawks blueliner who played in several all-star games but never won any individual awards. You can’t blame him; his peak came in the early 70s, right when Orr was winning everything in sight. But in our split system, White is tucked away in the West Division and doesn’t have to worry about competing with Orr, or Park, or even J.C. Tremblay, and that opens up the field enough to let him win three straight Norris Trophies from 1972 to 1974.
Let’s get the goalies involved. The timeline gets a little shorter here, since the Vezina has only been a vote-based award since 1982, but that still gives us enough time to dig up some weird results.
For example, Reggie Lemelin is now a two-time winner (1984 and 1985), joining such illustrious names as Murray Bannerman (1983), Guy Hebert (1999), Roman Turek (2000) and Marty Turco (2003). And Jon Casey gets an especially strange one in 1990 – he actually earned just two points in the voting that year, finishing as a near-afterthought in sixth place, but everyone ahead of him was in the Prince of Wales Conference.
Among today’s stars, we can add the 2013 Vezina to Henrik Lundqvist’s total, and make two-time winners out of Jonathan Quick (2012 and 2016) and Pekka Rinne (2011 and 2015). Roberto Luongo gets his first win, in 2007, as does Steve Mason in 2009. And if anybody can find him, someone let Ilya Bryzgalov know that he’s now a Vezina winner too, having won the Western Conference version back in 2010 with the Ducks.
As with the defencemen, a few Hall of Famers get in on the action, with Ed Belfour picking up honours in 1995 and 1998, Martin Brodeur getting one in 2006, and Patrick Roy adding 1991, 1997 and 2002 to his trophy cabinet. Grant Fuhr joins Roy with three new awards of his own, in 1982, 1986 and 1987.
We get to bolster a few more borderline Hall of Fame cases here too, as Curtis Joseph gets the Western Conference nod in 1994 and Chris Osgood takes home the trophy in 1996. And Tom Barrasso gets two, in 1988 and 1993, to give him three for his career.
But maybe the biggest news for the goaltenders is that they finally make a dent in the MVP race. In the real world, only three goaltenders have won the Hart Trophy since 1961. But start giving out a pair of MVPs each season, and things change for the men in masks, as we’ll see in the next section.
Let’s start with those goaltenders. Two get Prince of Wales MVP trophies during Wayne Gretzky’s epic run in the ’80s, with Pete Peeters (1983) and Pelle Lindbergh (1985) taking home the honours. They join three more goalie winners from the 1970s, as Tony Esposito (1972), Bernie Parent (1974) and Rogie Vachon all earn Harts. Fuhr picks up a nod in 1988, and Hasek adds a 1994 Hart to go with his two real world honours. Brodeur, Luongo and Quick also show up on the list of new MVPs.
So if the goalies are back in the Hart picture, what about defencemen? Only Chris Pronger has won the real award since the days of Bobby Orr. Do the blueliners fare any better here? Well… sort of. With one exception that we’ll get to in a minute, the defencemen don’t get as much respect as the goalies do. Paul Coffey gets a Hart for 1995, and Rod Langway somehow wins it in 1984, but that’s about it.
Turning to the forwards, a few names who never captured a Hart are suddenly multi-time winners. That includes Ryan Getzlaf, who’d have won the Western award in 2014 and 2015. Teemu Selanne is also a back-to-back winner, earning the honours in 1998 and 1999. Jarome Iginla gets three, for 2002, 2004 and 2008. Marcel Dionne gets the Prince of Wales version in 1980 and 1981, before the Kings shifted conferences and he ran into Gretzky. And maybe the oddest addition to the Hart roll call is journeyman Red Berenson, who picks up the honours for the all-expansion West Division in 1969 and 1970.
Elsewhere, Gretzky is the real world’s all-time leader with eight MVPs. He keeps that top spot in our alternate world, although the race gets tighter; Gretzky doesn’t add any Harts to his ledger, and a few of his competitors close the gap.
For example, Mario Lemieux cements his legacy with three additional MVPs, bringing him to six for this career. Those would have come in 1986 and 1989, when he finished behind Gretzky, as well as 2001, when he finished second to Joe Sakic in the real voting.
Other big names to take home our watered-down MVP honours include Jaromir Jagr (2000 and 2006), Phil Esposito (1973), Guy Lafleur (1976 and 1979) and Bryan Trottier (1978 and 1982). And Leaf fans will be happy to know that their six-decade dry spell is finally snapped, at least in our version of reality: Doug Gilmour takes home Campbell Conference honours in 1993.
In case you were wondering: Yes, there are a handful of seasons where we don’t have a new winner, because one conference didn’t get any votes at all for an award. It happens with both the Hart and Norris in 1968, as voters couldn’t find anyone worth recognizing in the expansion West Division. The Norris comes up empty again in 1970 for the same reason, and then one more time in 1980, when every defenceman to get any love from the voters came from the Prince of Wales.
So that wraps up our look at a world where the NHL followed MLB’s lead and handed out twice as many awards… with one exception. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed the absence of a prominent name that hasn’t been mentioned yet in this post. That’s because one hockey legend needs his own section.
And the winner is…
While running through the research for this piece, one name showed up more than any other. It’s a guy who already has plenty of hardware from a legendary career. But if he’d played in a world where the NHL split its awards by conference, he’d have a whole lot more. So let’s talk about Ray Bourque.
In the real world, Bourque won the Norris Trophy five times between 1987 and 1994. That was an impressive run, one that slots him behind only Orr, Lidstrom and Doug Harvey on the all-time list. But split the trophy by conference, and Bourque jumps to the top of the leaderboard by adding an astounding six more Norris Trophies. He wins the Prince of Wales version in 1982, 1985 and 1993, then adds Eastern Conference honors in 1995, 1996 and 1999. (He nearly wins the Western Conference version in 2001 too, but finishes second to Lidstrom.) That makes it a ridiculous 11 times that Norris voters thought Ray Bourque was the best defenceman in his conference.
But it gets even better for Bourque, because in our alternate universe, voters eventually get bored of handing them the Norris and start voting him for the Hart Trophy too. He’d have been the Eastern MVP in 1987, 1990 and 1991.
Mix in the real-world Calder that he picked up in 1980, and Bourque winds up with 15 different individual awards over the course of his career, making him just about the most decorated athlete in pro sports history.
So maybe now we finally know why the NHL never adopted the MLB model. It just wouldn’t have been fair to the guy who had to build Ray Bourque’s trophy case.