In retrospect, the 2019-20 Lady Byng was a near-perfect test case.
First, the award itself: The Byng carries an official description — “given to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability” — that makes no mention of it being reserved exclusively for on-ice performance. It is also considered to be one of the lesser NHL awards, which means it seldom gets much attention or creates any kind of stir. And, of course, the whole idea is to reward good character, i.e. “gentlemanly conduct.”
Second, the timing: In the spring of 2019 Auston Matthews did something very ungentlemanly, not to mention illegal, when he and some friends drunkenly approached a woman alone in her car in a deserted parking garage at 2am and attempted to open her locked door because they thought it would be “funny” to see how she responded. There’s a lot more to the incident and its aftermath, which you can read about in Katie Strang’s extensive piece for The Athletic or, if you’re stopped by the paywall, in this Sporting News piece by Tommy McArdle. News of this incident broke days before the 2019 preseason began and made a mid-sized splash. Then the 2019-20 season (mostly) happened and Matthews recorded 80 points and just eight minutes in the penalty box — numbers which made him a strong Lady Byng candidate by the stats-based standard that usually guides the people — i.e. members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association — who vote on this otherwise amorphous award.
If you wanted to know whether hockey journalists care at all about the off-ice behavior of the players they cover, the 2019-20 Lady Byng voting was about as close as you were likely to get to a real answer. And the answer we got, at least initially, was horribly disappointing.
Matthews received 21 first-place votes for the Lady Byng trophy, and a total of 107 out of 170 voters had him somewhere on their five-man ballot. That means well over half the voters either didn’t take into account Matthews’s off-ice incident at all or considered it but didn’t think it should disqualify him from consideration for an award for “gentlemanly conduct.” Out of a combination of curiosity and plain anger, I got on Twitter and asked the 21 people who put Matthews atop their ballots about that choice.
Honestly, I didn’t expect more than one or two people to respond, and I assumed those responses would likely be curt and simply assert the (erroneous) belief that the Lady Byng is officially designated as a purely an on-ice award and thus off-ice behavior is irrelevant. Instead, 16 of the 21 voters have responded to date, and every single one of those responses has been, at a minimum, very respectful. Even more remarkable is how many voters said they regretted their selection and/or intend to adjust their criteria in future years.
Some observers grew frustrated as journalist after journalist admitted to having given their vote very little thought, and that’s absolutely a fair criticism. My concern was different: I don’t think this particular choice should have required very much thought, because I believe Matthews’s name alone should have immediately brought to mind his off-ice actions. It shouldn’t be possible, even when one’s mind is on statistics and on-ice skills, to simply forget about his gross mistreatment of a stranger just over a year earlier. That’s where I find my disappointment in how this vote went down and also where I find my hope that this might be a pivot point for the future.
Almost nobody dodged the question, and more voters than not said that they plan to take off-ice misbehavior into account going forward. That’s a huge philosophical shift within a group of people who wield a lot of influence over how fans see the hockey world. It’s also a sign that these journalists are becoming more actively aware of the kinds of role models — and the Lady Byng absolutely sets forth its winner as a role model – they want to elevate.
Culture change happens slowly and maybe I’m bringing too much optimism to this (it’s 2020 and I’m a little starved for hope, so can you blame me?), but I truly believe that this is a meaningful step in the right direction. And it’s a step that only the Lady Byng — the runt of the NHL awards — could have brought us.
Below, find tweets from the voters who replied publicly, presented in the order in which I received them. Under that I’ll include excepts from direct messages I received. The voters who have yet to respond are Sam Carchidi, Joshua Clipperton and Seth Rorabaugh. Patrick Lalime and Patrick Sharp also voted for Matthews for the Byng, but neither is a frequent Twitter user so it’s likely they never saw the question.
Here are quotes from voters who chose to DM their replies to me. All are shared with permission:
Ray Ferraro of TSN: “I looked at the award and equated it as I always have to penalty minutes v production on the ice. I did not look with a more open, larger vision. 100% my fault and sloppy by me. This is my mistake.” Ferraro also said he appreciated getting a “boot in the pants” on the subject, as it affords him an opportunity to learn and grow.
Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald: “Melissa, I simply based my vote on his on-ice decorum. Your question is fair, though.”
Darren Dreger of TSN: “Given the charges against Matthews were dismissed, it may have made it easier for those of us who voted for him to conveniently judge his on-ice conduct only. Your questioning on this matter is fair and I will absolutely do a better job in the future of thoroughly analyzing the individual candidates I have identified as worthy of the Lady Byng.” (Dreger also touched on the issue during a radio spot in Montreal. The relevant portion begins at the 13:38 mark.)
The remaining person who responded via DM — David Poulin of TSN — asked that his reply be kept confidential. I will say only that he was very polite and respectful.