Honoring the top hockey people of 2018

The year in hockey 2018 gave us triumphs, like the Washington Capitals and the U.S. women’s national team overcoming their archrivals for glory. It gave us inspiration, whether it was overcoming the odds or overcoming tragedy. And it gave us the weirdness we’ve come to expect from our beloved sport, like a giant orange mascot that became everything from a nighttime talk-show punchline to a political avatar.

Here are the hockey people of 2018, as nominated by the hockey editorial staff of ESPN. We chronicle the nominees first, and then honor our Hockey Person of 2018.

The coaching job he did this past year was historic. To have full buy-in from his players to create a three-zone, hard, fast and aggressive style while having his Golden Knights maintain that discipline for over 100 regular-season and playoff games was remarkable. All aspects considered, it was one of the best single-season coaching jobs in the history of North American team sports. — Vic Morren

What an amazing story. Diagnosed with cancer in 2017, he had great news early in the 2018-19 season when he announced his cancer was in remission. Twelve days later, he recorded his first career hat trick in Pittsburgh on Hockey Fights Cancer Night.

Boyle is a great person. I interviewed him on “The Michael Kay Show” shortly after the hat trick. He was uncomfortable talking about himself. However, he spoke candidly about his son Declan’s health scare, which also ended well, and the state of his team. — Don La Greca

The Humboldt Broncos

On April 6, a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League was hit by a semitrailer truck that had failed to yield at a flashing stop sign. Sixteen people were killed and 13 were injured.

It was a moment that shook the hockey world, and the hockey world responded to the tragedy with an unprecedented outpouring. There were moments of silence. There were NHL teams that swapped out their nameplates for “BRONCOS” during warmups, and wore the team’s logo as a helmet sticker. Hockey fans and players from around the world began placing hockey sticks outside their doors to honor the victims. Over $15 million was raised for the victims and their families on GoFundMe, which was a record at the time.

Survivors like Matthieu Gomercic and Kaleb Dahlgren began appearing at Stanley Cup playoff games, to standing ovations. At the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, 10 survivors of the crash had an emotional reunion, and their late coach, Darcy Haugan, won the inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.

The Broncos returned to the ice Sept. 12 in a game that was televised nationally in Canada. Many survivors were present at the game. The numbers of the teammates they lost in the crash were retired by the team. — Greg Wyshynski

In calendar year 2018, nobody (as of Dec. 28) had more points including playoffs than Kucherov (122). Last season, he became just the third Lightning player to reach the 100-point plateau. This season, he’s taken his game to another level, leading the NHL in points with 61. He’s the first Lightning player to post back-to-back four-point games. And he got a contract extension that will keep him with the Lightning through the 2026-27 season.

Plus, you’ve got to give him some love for his Geico commercial. — Vince Masi

For a franchise built on the moniker of the Broad Street Bullies, what’s better than a hairy, oddball creature to exemplify the best of Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent, Eric Lindros and Ron Hextall?

The Flyers were long overdue for a mascot, and like a movie that has to overcome some negative early press, Gritty has now become a box-office smash and is the biggest highlight of an otherwise terrible Flyers season. — Adnan Virk

Gritty has transcended the hockey world to become a sports/pop culture/political phenomenon. The Flyers hit on something that was funny, tough, goofy, graceful, smart and idiotic — so many attributes that make hockey great. And the general public is eating it up, which is also great for the game. — Patrick Hanrahan

Gary Bettman, commissioner, NHL

He might be the least cuddly of all North American major league commissioners — that’s saying something with Roger Goodell in the mix — but Gary Bettman’s profound mark on the game of hockey is incontrovertible. And with full respect to 1994, 2004 and 2012, he might have been at his most influential yet in 2018.

Celebrating his silver anniversary as NHL commissioner in February, the 66-year-old emerged relatively unscathed after buffering the misery directed at team owners (his job, admittedly) in denying their charges the chance to compete at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Fans and players were temporarily ticked, sure, but nowhere near rioting. When handed the Stanley Cup by Bettman in June, Alex Ovechkin — who at one time threatened to represent Russia whether he was permitted or not — might have offered a silent thank-you for his forced non-participation. The Capitals captain could conceivably have been gassed out instead of winning it all after representing his country halfway around the world. And he did so while besting Bettman’s grand experiment, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who were a great story unto themselves.

What else does the NHL’s chief administrator have his prints all over in 2018? A second preseason tour of China, this time with the Cup in tow, to further grow the global game. More regular-season contests in Europe. Diving headfirst into the sports gambling pool by inking multiyear partnerships with both MGM Resorts International and FanDuel. Announced expansion to Seattle in 2021.

On the darker side, there was the successful sweeping under the carpet of a concussion lawsuit, in the form of an $18.9 million settlement that did not acknowledge any liability. Make no mistake, that suit, involving more than 300 retired players, amounted to a mighty thorn in the league’s side. It might have festered into a truly roaring infection. Bettman helped sort it out, on the comparative quiet and cheap.

While juggling such individual projects, in addition to running the day-to-day operations of a sprawling league, Bettman managed to get himself inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the ultimate honor for anyone involved with the game. The NHL will be forever changed, in a horde of ways positive and/or negative, because of what its commissioner helped accomplish in only the past 12 months. Without argument, he’s my 2018 Hockey Person of the Year. — Victoria Matiash

Maddie Rooney, goalie, U.S. women’s national team

“It’s one more save, and it’s a gold medal.”

That’s what 20-year-old goalie Maddie Rooney said was going through her mind when Canada’s Meghan Agosta preparing to take the sixth Canadian chance of the 2018 Winter Olympic gold medal game’s overtime shootout. Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson had given the Americans the lead with a brilliant move — one she nicknamed “Oops, I Did It Again” — that put the puck past Shannon Szabados.

Agosta skated in. She drew the puck back, then made a move, trying to draw open Rooney’s pads. But the netminder didn’t budge. Rooney made the save, then reached back to swipe the puck away from her crease and completely out of danger. She leaped in the air, hurled her stick and ran on her skates to be mobbed by her teammates, having secured the first women’s hockey Olympic gold for the U.S. since 1998, having finally overcome their tormentors from Canada.

She made 29 saves through regulation and overtime, some of them spectacular. In the span of 10 years, she went from playing on boys teams in Andover, Minnesota, to backstopping her nation to Olympic gold.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be on shows like ‘Ellen’ and ‘Jimmy Fallon,'” Rooney said. “Obviously, I have to change my goals for myself, but it has definitely given me a new perspective on things.” — Greg Wyshynski

Hockey Person of the Year for 2018

Alex Ovechkin, left wing, Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin was always going to be remembered as one of the greatest players in NHL history. But his placement in the top echelon would have forever been debated because he never achieved perhaps the most important thing in hockey: winning a championship with his team. 2018 was the year that changed that.

In his age-32 season, Ovechkin led the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s 43-year existence. The captain willed them there after a season of dominance. He won his seventh goal-scoring title (tying him with Bobby Hull for the most all time) as his 49 goals accounted for 19.1 percent of Washington’s total scoring, the highest percentage share for any player in the league. Just a few months earlier, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan publicly wondered if his team’s Stanley Cup window had closed after so many outstanding regular-season performances ended with postseason heartbreak (usually at the hands of the rival Pittsburgh Penguins). Ovechkin’s GM also suggested his star winger might need to adapt his game to thrive in the modern NHL, which is obsessed with speed and youth.

But Ovechkin, who famously drinks Coca-Cola between periods and fuels up with cream-based pasta dishes before games, demonstrated his unwavering commitment to self. He did not change his ways. Before the season, the Russian told reporters the team was “not going to be suck,” then made good on his word. Ovechkin found an extra gear to fend off young challengers for the Rocket Richard Trophy — like 20-year-old Patrik Laine — while galvanizing his own team, which had the perfect blend of seasoned veterans and fresh faces. All those players shared a common trait: They all fed off of their captain.

Ovechkin looked like he was having the time of his life in the Caps’ postseason tear, as he scored 15 goals in 24 playoff games, including two game winners. He then reminded us why it pays to be a true sports fan. His unbridled bliss in the months after the Caps won the Cup was contagious. Yes, it was often a booze-filled binge, including a shirtless (sloppy) swim in the Georgetown fountains, among many other public displays of elation. But the pure excitement about winning one of the most glorious trophies in sports was contagious. The captain seemed to just get it. So much of the Capitals’ celebration was shared with the fans in D.C., reminding them that this was their championship, too. — Emily Kaplan

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