Each year, the National Hockey League awards one player with the “Lady Byng Memorial Trophy”. It is given to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability. To win the award, you have to be a top point producer in the league, while maintaining composure in high-pressure situations. Typically, the best players are the ones who receive the most attention, with body checks, slashes, and constant attention by the opponents in an attempt to throw them off their game. Yet, the recipient of this award is a player who takes all of that attention and perseveres, producing points at a high level and not retaliating by taking a penalty.
This week, we are talking about hesed, which is often translated as righteous, mercy or grace. I have commonly believed that hockey players are some of the most honourable and well-respected players. More often than not, you will find an NHL player donating his time to the community, visiting children in the hospital, or donating money to charitable causes. During this time you’ll hear most hockey players describe their frustration that they are not playing hockey, but that some things are more significant than hockey. It’s this mentality that impreses me when it comes to the character of these players. It’s the players that are the elite of the elite, the ones who demonstrate what it means to be a good person on and off the ice that ultimately make hockey meaningful sports to watch.
For this week, I have put together a list of who I believe are the 5 most sportsmanlike players to have played in the NHL. To narrow down to my top 5 choices, I limited my options to players who have won the Lady Byng trophy. It was not easy, but when you look at the list of other recepients of this award you see incredible men who did amazing work on and off the ice.
Honourable Mention: Wayne Gretzky – 1980, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1999
We are going to be talking about “The Great One” a lot more as we go on this journey together. Still, I had to at least mention him here since he won the award five times over nineteen years. However, I wanted to leave some space for some other players. While one could argue that Wayne Gretzky deserves to be at the top of this list, I’m going to exclude him to feature some other players. Don’t worry, Wayne will undoubtedly be featured again soon.
5. Anze Kopitar – 2016
This one is personal for me. I love Anze Kopitar. Every year in my family’s fantasy hockey draft, I always make an effort to draft him. Watching him lead the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, with jaw-dropping plays and elite sportsmanship, he quickly became one of my favourite players to watch. While he only won the Lady Byng Trophy one time, he was nominated several times.
Off the ice, Kopitar is deeply committed to charitable causes, and continuously demonstrates what it means to be a good person. He consistently shows excellent leadership to his teammates and sets an example for younger athletes. Here are a few examples of how he spends his time off the ice.
4. Martin St. Louis – 2010, 2011, 2013
Martin St. Louis is one of the most beloved NHL players. As a small undersized forward, few teams thought he would make it in the NHL. 1,134 games and 1,033 points later, two-time Art Ross Trophy winner and three-time Lady Byng Memorial Trophy winner, Martin St Louis is without question one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Teammates describe him as a leader, as someone you want to be around, someone that you gravitate to, a hilarious easy-going guy who knew when to be competitive. He was one of those players that made the players around him better. He is deeply loved and respected because he demonstrated how to be a good teammate and person each and every day. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
One of the more touching stories from his time in the NHL was during one of his last seasons when he was with the New York Rangers competing for a Stanley Cup. Sadly, his mother passed away suddenly right before Game 5 of the second round. He had every reason to choose not to play but decided that he owed it to his mother and his teammates to compete. Even under the deepest despair, St. Louis found a way to fight each night for his teammates.
3. Dave Keon – 1962, 1963
Perhaps my father’s favourite player, I had grown up hearing about the legendary Dave Keon. He was referred to as a superhero, a legend, maybe one of the greatest players to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. What was terrific about Dave Keon is that he played the game so passionately and averaged only 5 minutes of penalties through an NHL season. No other NHL player has ever done that. Keon is beloved by his teammates, the Leafs organization, and the entire Toronto hockey community. During his time with the Maple Leafs, he captured many historic accomplishments and hardware, winning four Stanley Cups, beating multiple Maple Leafs records, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and two Lady Byng Memorial Trophies.
2. Frank Boucher (1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1935)
Granted, I have never seen any Frank Boucher highlights, nor had I really heard of Frank Boucher until I began researching this article. Yet, there is no question that this man was one of the most exemplary players to play the game. Given the nickname “Gentleman Frank”, he amassed over 1,000 points. He won four Stanley Cups, and seven Lady Byng Memorial Trophies, the most by any NHL player. However, once Frank retired, he committed his life to a life of hockey, coaching, scouting, and was even chairman of the NHL rules committee for fifteen years. Frank Boucher was one of the finest all-round players of his time, his gentlemanly conduct on the ice served as a benchmark for many who followed him. He was also inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958, cementing “Gentleman Frank” as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
1. Pavel Datsyuk (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009)
If you were a fan of the game of hockey in the 2000s, you could not watch SportsCenter without hearing the name Pavel Datsyuk. “The Magic Man” stickhandled like nobody else had ever done before. He was faster than any other player before him. Pavel Datsyuk was in a league of his own. Words honestly cannot explain how great he was on the ice, so let me let him do the talking.
The list of accolades is endless. He is one of few players to be in the Triple Gold Club (Stanley Cup, World Championship Gold Medal, and Olympic Gold Medal), won two Stanley Cups, many international awards, and a four-time Lady Byng Memorial Trophy Winner. Players who played with him loved him and admired his calming presence while competing fiercely. There will never be another player like Pavel, and his impact on the game of hockey will last forever.