The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy is an award with few defenders today. Requests for it to be renamed are as much a part of the annual hockey season as training camp stories about Player X being in the best shape of his life. Complaints about the way it is awarded are virtually inescapable. Some act as though it’s a second-class trophy when compared to the main prizes of the NHL Awards.
That’s all too bad, because when it comes right down to it the Lady Byng symbolizes much of what is great about the sport.
Let’s start with the name. In January, Colby Cosh wrote an eloquent rebuttal to the idea of renaming it after Jean Beliveau, and he made the obvious comparison to the Stanley Cup. From his column for Maclean’s:
Sportswriters ought to recognize that hockey’s fussy silverware from British Empire times is essential to the sport’s identity. No one has any trouble understanding this when it comes to Lord Stanley’s Cup. And everyone is equally aware that other sports haven’t been able to fake the charm of the NHL’s antique trophies.
Why don’t we rename the Stanley Cup? After all, who really remembers Frederick Arthur Stanley as a person? How many hockey fans today even remember his first name, let alone anything about his life? Yet renaming the Stanley Cup is unthinkable because it carries the weight of more than a century of tradition and history, a gravitas of immeasurable worth to the sport.
Lady Evelyn Byng isn’t such a bad person to have a trophy named after, even if the average hockey fan knows nothing about her. She was an active volunteer, including in Ottawa during the Second World War, and a writer who was the first president of the Canadian Authors Association. Also, unlike James Norris or Conn Smythe, she actually came up with the award that bears her name, and donated it to the league.
Then there’s what the trophy actually represents. According to the official NHL description, the award goes “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”
Sportsmanship is one of the highest virtues of any sport. Playing the game fairly and well, respecting one’s competitors and exhibiting self-control in the face of provocation are the kinds of things that sports are supposed to teach all of us. It’s easy for hockey fans to be obsessed with winning to the point that they forget it’s ultimately a game; the Lady Byng Trophy at its best is a reminder of the higher goals of hockey.
It’s also one of the rare awards in major league sport named after a woman. In some ways it stands as a nearly century-old testament to the presence and influence of female fans of the game. It’s the only award that does this.
There is, of course, the problem of voting, the issue that the award simply now goes to the top-30 NHL scorer with the fewest penalty minutes. That isn’t a problem with the trophy itself, though, any more than it is the fault of the Norris that it is only handed out to offensive defencemen, or the fault of the Jack Adams that coaches of consistently good teams almost never win it.
We don't blame Alex Ovechkin for being an All-Star at both right wing and left wing in a single season; why would we blame Evelyn Byng for the way her trophy is awarded?
As Cosh notes, the Professional Hockey Writers Association is at fault for the way the voting is conducted. The name of the trophy is decidedly secondary to the real question: Why is the PHWA permitted to do such a poor job of managing the awards in its purview?
There is no credible case against the Lady Byng. The arguments against it basically boil down to the way the PHWA has mishandled it and the ramblings of a few philistines who in the name of winning at all costs forget that sportsmanship is the noblest quality of sport.
The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy is rich in history and tradition. It honours the highest purpose of sport and, at its best, also the players who most embody those qualities. It’s an irreplaceable piece of hockey heritage and should be treated as such.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.