For all those years when the Carolina Hurricanes had an obvious excess of character in their dressing room – the players who propelled the team to the third round of the playoffs (and beyond) three times in a seven-season span – they had only one finalist for the Masterton Trophy, which is supposed to honor that kind of thing.
That was Ron Francis in 2002, and he won the King Clancy Trophy for community service instead. In the years after that, despite a run of worthy candidates like Rod Brind'Amour, Erik Cole, Jay Harrison, Bret Hedican and Glen Wesley, the Hurricanes couldn't get a sniff.
So it's a little surprising that at a time when the Hurricanes are trying to rebuild that kind of leadership cadre, their players keep getting invited to Las Vegas for this one. A year after Derek Ryan was a finalist for the Masterton, which went to Ottawa's Craig Anderson, Jordan Staal will be at the NHL Awards on Wednesday as the team's second straight finalist for the award, which honors sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to hockey.
That's partly because of a return in recent years to the original spirit of the award, which had slipped into a sort-of “worst injury” trophy instead of the career-achievement honor it was intended to be. Both Ryan and Staal fit the appropriate, revived criteria perfectly.
Ryan, who fought his way through the minor leagues and Europe to make his NHL debut at 29 epitomized perseverance and dedication. Staal does as well, if in other ways.
He played through most of the season laboring under the burden that the daughter his wife carried had a terminal birth defect and was not likely to survive very long, if at all. She was born, and died, in February. Yet he told only a few people and never hinted at the personal baggage he carried, upholding his responsibility to the team and his teammates throughout, a model of stoic reserve at a time of tremendous family tragedy.
That he's a leader on his team and committed to his community both in the Triangle and in his hometown of Thunder Bay only reinforces the quality of his candidacy. After the season, the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which nominated Staal for the Masterton, also gave him the Josef Vasicek Award honoring cooperation with the local media. He became only the second two-time winner of that award. His teammates also voted him the winner of their Steve Chiasson Award, honoring the late defenseman – making him the fourth multiple winner of that award.
Will Staal win? It's a tough field. Brian Boyle was diagnosed with leukemia in training camp and made it back to the New Jersey Devils' lineup by November, while Roberto Luongo is the kind of distinguished veteran presence this award was created to honor, and his speech honoring the victims of the Parkland mass shooting underlined the strength of his personality.
Staal deserves to win, but so do the other two, and this really is an award where being nominated is part of the honor. Whatever happens Wednesday night, Staal earned it.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock