Ranking the top 10 hockey people of 2017

NHL News

If the hockey year of 2017 was anything, it was … interesting.

We had back-to-back Stanley Cup champions for the first time in 19 years. We had the frequent (and unavoidable) entanglements between hockey and politics, both domestic and international. We had players who inspired us — and players who inspired backlash.

Here are the 10 best hockey people of 2017, give or take a few. In selecting them, we were looking for a full picture of the sport over the past year, both on the ice and off — individuals who contributed not only to the news of the day, but whose contributions might linger in our memories long after the book is closed on 2017.

Please leave your feedback, and any alternative nominations, in the comments.

And here … we … go.

10. James Mirtle

If you’re a puckhead, you’ve felt the tremors from the shifts in the hockey media landscape over the past year. Perhaps registering highest on the seismograph: the emergence of The Athletic, the subscription-based digital media site that has used hockey coverage as the foundation to try to cultivate a large audience. (But honestly, who makes you pay for great exclusive hockey coverage, right?)

Mirtle jumped from the Toronto Globe & Mail to the startup as its NHL editor-in-chief and helped assemble an impressive collection of writers behind his paywalls, from columnists like our old friend Pierre LeBrun to beat writers like Michael Russo of the Star Tribune to analytics acolytes like Tyler Dellow of the hockey blogosphere, where Mirtle was a founding father.

Like any media venture, The Athletic has its champions and its critics, its optimists and its pessimists (and more than a few enemies in the print world). What can’t be debated is how many hockey media names it has attracted in a short span, which is a credit to Mirtle’s relationships and respect.

Subban remained the NHL’s most consistent lightning rod and its preeminent marketing guru.

Who else, in a postseason run to the Stanley Cup Final, was singled out as a “clown” by NBC Sports’ Mike Milbury and invented a diversionary “controversy” about halitosis involving his opponents’ best player, to the point where he was bringing bottles of Listerine to the rink? Who else got his own “E:60” segment and his own groovy trailer for signing with Adidas?

Oh, and he’s a pretty great defenseman too, as Subban earned accolades for playing a shutdown role in the Nashville Predators‘ first Western Conference championship in franchise history, a performance certainly worth its weight in tossed catfish.

8. Steve Mayer

The NHL’s yearlong centennial celebration was a group effort, with years of planning and weekly meetings that generated ideas like the “NHL 100” greatest players list and its traveling road show of trophies and jerseys that visited dozens of cities.

With a stick-tap to Gary Meagher, NHL vice president of communications and a driving force in the centennial planning, we’ll give the nod here to Mayer, the league’s executive vice president and executive producer for programming and creative development. Among other parts of the centennial, Mayer helped create the massive, star-studded party around the NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles, as well as successful Stanley Cup and centennial documentaries.

You get only one crack at a centennial celebration, and Mayer helped create a memorable one, as the NHL did what it does best: marinate in its own nostalgia while gazing at its navel.

Boyle has earned his reputation as one of the NHL’s most emotionally engaging players through 11 years, someone who’s able to change the feeling on the bench and in the crowd with a single shift. So it felt natural when the hockey world got emotional over his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a rare but treatable form of cancer that affects the bone marrow.

He was diagnosed in the preseason, earning an outpouring of prayers and well-wishes. He returned to the New Jersey Devils on Nov. 1, and on Nov. 9, he scored his first goal of the season, weeping openly during his celebration. “I’ve never cried after a goal before. Usually, I can keep it in check,” Boyle told ESPN. “These guys — my wife, my kids, my parents, my siblings — they’ve been through a lot.”

Boyle was an inspiration to many this season, not only for his journey back to the ice but how he has played on it: Through all the treatment and the tears, Boyle has 10 goals in 25 games, on pace for the best goal-scoring season of his career.

Did the Edmonton Oilers star ascend to the “Best Player in the World” throne in 2017?

He won the Art Ross, the Pearson for player of the year and the Hart for most valuable player, in a 100-point season that propelled the Oilers to their first playoff appearance since losing in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

Although the Oilers struggled mightily to start the 2017-18 season, McDavid had 43 points in 36 games, closing the gap for the NHL scoring lead. Oh, and his assists are prettier than 99 percent of highlight-reel goals.

McSavior, indeed.

5. Gary Bettman

In typical Dickensian fashion, it was the best of Gary and the worst of Gary.

Bettman deserves good marks for the NHL’s centennial celebration, for the league’s continuing push into digital media and streaming, for the league’s lucrative expansion process, which now targets Seattle, and for taking on the IOC and refusing to allow the most corrupt organization this side of FIFA to continue to profit from free talent on loan, without the NHL getting as much as a logo on the rink in exchange.

But Bettman deserves criticism for the league’s ongoing tribulations regarding CTE, its hypocrisy in claiming to avoid politics while trying to impact the mayoral election in Calgary for a new arena, and by squandering much of the goodwill the NHL earned in that IOC fight by quickly pivoting to “the Olympics as a CBA bargaining chip” ahead of the (next) lockout.

There was no avoiding the collision between sports and politics in 2017, as much as we all tried to leap out of the way.

For example, the protests during the national anthem in the NFL extended to other sports. Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown became the only player in the NHL to take part in one, raising a fist during their first road game of the season to protest social inequality and police treatment of African-Americans.

Like Colin Kaepernick, Brown said he was inspired to action after speaking with active military about the right to protest and the right way to protest. Also like Kaepernick, Brown said he faced racial slurs and death threats for his actions.

Tampa police reached out to Brown after the protest to meet with him, and Brown — one of about only 30 black players in the league — went through a day of training with the officers. He protested during the anthem only once and explained what he hoped to accomplish in its aftermath:

From the backlash over the Penguins accepting their White House invitation to Alex Ovechkin creating whatever “Putin’s Team” is, hockey and politics had a messy year. Brown’s actions, to some, might have contributed to it, but in the end, the Lightning forward appears dedicated to having a positive impact born out of a divisive moment.

3. The USWNT Leadership (Kacey Bellamy, Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, Monique Lamoureux-Morando)

Since 1998, the U.S. women’s national team has won a gold medal, three silvers and a bronze at the Winter Olympics, which by our math means the players were much more successful than their male counterparts during that period. Yet USA Hockey’s investment in them, and in women’s hockey programs, paled in comparison to that of the men and the boys.

So the USWNT decided to raise their voices as one and take a stand.

The team threatened to sit out the 2017 IIHF world championships in Michigan if its requests — a living wage, more investment in girls’ hockey programs and to generally not be treated like an afterthought — weren’t granted. And it showed incredible solidarity in the process, especially from the younger players who might have been recruited as “scabs” for the tournament.

The players listed above were the core group of leaders (as well as the public relations voices) during that tense negotiation, one that led to a historic new multiyear agreement with USA Hockey. You can add younger standouts like Kendall Coyne and Brianna Decker to the list and give a primary assist to the law firm of Ballard Spahr, which worked pro bono on the players’ behalf after helping the U.S. women’s national soccer team earn a deal that set the tone for the hockey players’ actions.

Mario never won three Cups.

Now, granted, there are a billion reasons why that was, ranging from his health to the “garage league” NHL hockey in the 1990s, but the fact remains that Mario Lemieux won two Stanley Cups in back-to-back years with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Sidney Crosby matched that in 2017 with his second Cup in two seasons — giving him three championships in his career.

More than the two previous wins, this was Sid’s Cup. He tallied 44 goals in the regular season to lead the NHL. He had 27 points in 24 playoff games, including a postseason-best 19 assists. He exerted his will throughout the playoffs, from assisting in a Game 7 winner against the Capitals to creating key goals in Game 4 against Ottawa to three assists in their Game 5 blowout over the Predators in the Final.

Phil Kessel still should have won the 2016 Conn Smythe, but the 2017 playoff MVP was Crosby all the way.

Mario won two of those, too.

Sid was great. But he’s not the 2017 hockey person of the year, because of this guy …

1. Bill Foley

His expansion fee for the Vegas Golden Knights was $500 million, but his total investment in the team far exceeds that: the marketing, the infrastructure of the organization, the sterling practice facility 25 minutes from The Strip that gives his community two sheets of ice in the desert — the cost was extraordinary to put NHL roots down in Sin City.

But Bill Foley is our Hockey Person of the Year not just because of the money he spent, but how he spent it. Foley didn’t just turn the key on the franchise and walk away — he was active in every facet of the Knights’ construction, from personnel to the team’s uniforms. He assembled a hockey operations team, from senior VP Murray Craven to GM George McPhee to scouting boss Scott Luce to head coach Gerard Gallant, that gives his team a formidable brain trust. Their success on the ice, and in retail, is to his credit.

But it’s not just how he spent the money, but also why he spent it: Foley wanted to bring an NHL team to Las Vegas for Las Vegas because he believed in the hockey community there, and because he wanted a professional team that the city could rally around.

Little did he know how vital it would become after the “One October” shooting massacre that shook the city to its core — one week later, thousands of fans gathered at the Knights’ first home game to find everything from distraction to catharsis, and to find it together. And every subsequent home game — frequently won by the Knights, in their record-setting first season — is a monument to the victims, their families and the city’s first responders.

For bringing an NHL team to Las Vegas, and for being the NHL team that Vegas needed, Bill Foley is our Person of the Year for 2017.

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