So I’m sitting next to Jason Blake’s wife and I think to myself, “Well this is pretty cool.”
Actually, that’s not how it happened. While I had been thinking that the entire night, it wasn’t until Jason kicked me out of his seat that I knew who I was next to all along.
It is the general opinion of hockey fans that the NHL Awards Show is boring. People win stuff that is mostly decided upon months beforehand, and everyone pats each other on the back. Ron MacLean will make jokes no one understands, and the European players use the Sammy Sosa card when accepting awards. However, put yourself in the same room as those people and your opinion quickly changes.
Case in point: Thursday night’s NHL Awards Show was freaking awesome, and here’s why:
That was taken to the left of the Elgin Theatre’s stage, just before I was thrown into Mrs. Blake’s lap. If case you haven’t caught on, Thursday night I was a seat filler at the NHL Awards Show in Toronto. Now there is plenty to talk about from that night, but I’m sure you’re wondering how all this is possible, so let me explain.
This was my girlfriend’s idea. Sometime last month she decided that she wanted to go to the NHL Awards. This led to a Google search or two, where she found out you could fill seats for free. Apparently this is something the NHL advertises for on Craigslist, and so last week she applied and was confirmed two days later. She then hacked into my Yahoo account, sent in my info and I was confirmed the next day. What can I say, she’s a keeper.
Initially this venture was much less glamorous than it appears. We were supposed to meet on Victoria Street at the rear entrance of the Elgin Theatre at 5:30. This roughly translated into walking down an alley and banging on a door with an impending sense of doom. For a good 30 seconds or so I thought we were going to be straight up murdered, which was bad because I was wearing my only good dress shirt.
Thankfully that door did lead into the Theatre, and soon we were in a big room waiting around for something to happen. This was a common theme over the next two hours, with the only variation being a return trip to the alley to check in and get a fancy purple wristband. A select few people were also given actual tickets to the show, but these turned out to be the booby prize: obstructed view seats.
Following another period of nothing, we were given very simple instructions: stand up during commercial breaks. Don’t talk to the talent. Don’t touch the talent. Don’t breathe on the talent. Don’t take pictures of the talent. Don’t ask the talent to father your children. You know, the usual.
After a fire alarm and a reminder of the rules, we were finally escorted into the theatre. We stood in the back while everyone was asked to sit down. Our purpose was to literally fill in holes in the audience. When award presenters or recipients leave their seats, a seat filler takes their place to keep the crowd looking full. Sometimes you sit there the rest of the night, and sometimes for only one segment of the show. There is no way of knowing where you sit or for how long, it really all boils down to luck.
For the first two segments of the show I sat in two different seats, taking up space until everyone arrived. After that I got away from filler duty by standing alone in the back of the theatre. I wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere a bit, and while sitting is fun I thought getting an overview of the crowd would be better.
It was here that Pavel Datsyuk would walk past me twice. The first time was after winning the Selke Trophy. Pavel went onstage, saying very little and admitting his English was “short”. He was so nervous that he forgot his notes, which were taken away during the commercial break. For being such a great hockey player, Datsyuk just never looks comfortable in his own skin.
He got back to his seat just in time for the Lady Byng Award, which he was up for as well. The winner the last two years, Datsyuk was a shoe in for a third, even up against the likes of Jason Pominville and everyone’s favorite hobbit, Martin St. Louis. Of course Pavel won, making an even more awkward speech without the aid of notes.
When you really think about it, the Lady Byng is the perfect trophy for Datsyuk. Unassuming in every way, he is the kind of personality you’d feel bad about if he didn’t have ridiculous talent attached to it. While he plays hockey with a fire few are able to match, off the ice he is meek and downright nervous. If he didn’t average over a point per game, you would think he was the Zamboni driver at your local rink.
Walking with his shoulders low, he walked past me the second time with his eyes darting away, appearing to have enough of all this awards show stuff. Since I was alone, I gave him the obligatory “congratulations” as he passed. He responded with a quick “thank you”, walking as quickly as possible to the comfort of his teammates. It wasn’t done in a rude way, in fact, his tone was more of an “I’m sorry I’m good and they make me go on stage”.
If he wasn’t an All Star hockey player and Stanley Cup Champion, you would be okay with him dating your sister. Before the show ended you could see him rocking back and forth in his seat like a child stuck at Grandma’s house. “Can we go now? Can we go?” Still, there he was signing autographs and taking pictures with fans after the show, that sense of obligation making him available. He’s just… nice, and in a way that is what the award has become, so Pavel had better get a bigger shelf.
Just after Datsyuk’s second trip past me a group of Calgary Flames flew by at the commercial break. Iginla led the charge to what I’m guessing was the bar, with his date and another girl behind him. Bringing up the rear was Dion Phaneuf, the young D man with a shiny new contract.
As he was running by he practically ran over a kid in a “North Stars” jersey. I couldn’t help but think Patrick Marleau’s ears were ringing as he said “I’m sorry” to the dazed little kid. They didn’t make it back to their seats before the show started again, so they were stuck back where I was. By that time I was wrangled up by the seat people on the other side of the theatre, where my girlfriend and I watched as the foursome was suddenly stranded next to the ushers. By then I realized that Phaneuf’s date was Elisha Cuthbert, the actress who sold high on Sean Avery’s appendix.
Eventually this led to a bunch of kids asking for autographs, piling around the group like they were offering free candy. Funny thing is, all those little kids got autographs from Iginla, but no one even bothered talking to Phaneuf. It was as if they didn’t recognize him at all, which is saying something considering he is the newest member of the NHL’s $7 Million Club.
From now on, whenever I’m with someone and a mutual friend only acknowledges the person I’m with, it will be called getting “Phaneufed”.
My next adventure was the only time I actually got yelled at during the evening. Just after I took the above picture and with about ten seconds left until the show came from break, I hear the wrangler yelling and motioning me over to a seat about six rows up. It was four seats or so in, which meant there were three chances of me stepping on someone important. I went 1 for 3, with the only victim an understanding woman in a light blue dress.
“Sorry, they were kinda screaming at me to get here.” I whisper as Ron MacLean makes a joke about rookies that no one laughed at.
“It’s okay. It happens,” was all that she said, but I knew we would be friends for life.
We watched Kane win the Calder just a few feet away from the girlfriend, and then Gary Bettman came out to give the “Lifetime Achievement Award” to Mr. Hockey. The highlight of my night came when someone behind me actually booed Bettman when he came onstage. My guess is that it was Nicholas Backstrom, who was pissed he got dressed up like the Icelandic coach from D2: The Mighty Ducks and didn’t win the Calder.
After Howe gave the finger snaps to a little kid and accepted the award, the show went to commercial and I did the awkward stand up thing. The good news is that I got a good chance to survey the area. To the left was the Red Wings section, with Mike Babcock, Datsyuk, Hasek, Lidstrom, and Zetterberg all around eachother. Behind me was Backstrom, and oh wait, there’s Jason Blake in the aisle. Time to get up.
I gave him a nod as I made my way over to the side of the theatre. Pretty soon I was in a seat near the back, where I stayed for the rest of the show. My girlfriend was in her seat near Kane for the majority of the night, a row behind Gino Malkin and a few seats away from Brodeur when he won the Vezina. If you are looking carefully, you can see her on TV as he gets up to accept the award.
After Ovechkin won the Hart and told everyone “Iloveyoubye” it was time to leave. I headed to the back of the theatre and watched as generations of NHL players walked past me. This was as good a time as any to whore it up and ask for autographs or pictures, but I just didn’t have it in me.
Hasek and his family walked by, with Lidstrom asking him if he was going to the after party. Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau start talking, and suddenly Iginla comes over to shake Gainey’s hand. Scotty Bowman gets close enough to ask him about local golf courses, and Zedeno Chara proves to be freakishly tall even off skates. Pominville lingered long enough to see him not surrounded by girls, and Datsyuk once again sped by.
Still, I didn’t want to be “that guy” in all of this. I didn’t come to the show to get autographs or pictures for my Facebook, I just wanted to see what it was like; see what the players are like in person. So while millionaires strutted by, I just sat back and watched. I did give Dom a nod as he passed, because Jon is right about him in a way.
We left the theatre with Bob Gainey behind us, and with a quick right we were back into the real world. Reliving the experience at the Pickle Barrel, we couldn’t help but laugh at how absurd the whole thing was. Driving 90 minutes to be a warm body for the sake of the show’s director. There was no pay, no cost, and the only evidence of the trip was a disposable wristband and two programs any jokester could buy off eBay.
Even so, it was a pretty great night, and something that will forever change the way I watch an awards show. Knowing that there are some nobodies next to all those stars is one thing, but to see them for yourself is a whole new view of the game. Later on my girlfriend sent me this story, pointing out this:
The fans may not have got personal signed autographs, but they did actually witness a hockey legend in the flesh.
“That’s us,” she said.
Yeah, I think I’m okay with that.