Troy Brouwer stood up from his stall in the Washington Capitals’ dressing room once coach Barry Trotz ceded the floor, and Brouwer, a novelty top hat and fake beard in hand, began his off-the-cuff speech.
He praised goaltender Braden Holtby for a great game, then gave defenseman Tim Gleason a shout-out for his third-period fight. Brouwer, though, chose to honor someone who blocked shots and played well against the wall, and so after three steps toward the center of the room, he turned and tossed the props to rookie Andre Burakovsky.
“You tricked us!” right wing Jason Chimera yelled from his own stall, standing up as players applauded and hollered at the 20-year-old rookie. “You tricked us! You tricked us!”
Burakovsky’s selection as the player of the game seemed natural for different reasons. While he dug a puck out from along the wall that led to a third-period goal, and later blocked a slap shot on an otherwise clear look at the net, missing from Brouwer’s congratulatory speech was the fact that Burakovsky scored twice in the Capitals’ 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers.
A similar apparent oversight occurred two days earlier, when Brouwer received the honor from previous recipient Alex Ovechkin. Despite Braden Holtby’s second career playoff shutout and third-line center Jay Beagle scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory, Ovechkin handed the hardware to Brouwer, praising him for battling behind the net on the sequence that would lead to Beagle’s goal.
Acknowledging teammates’ contributions in a brief post-victory ceremony isn’t uncommon around the league, with the Rangers honoring their own with the Broadway hat and the Calgary Flames passing around a fire helmet. It’s not even unique to this season; during Bruce Boudreau’s tenure as the Capitals’ coach, which ended in 2011, players were rewarded for their efforts with a hard hat, signaling a tough-as-nails approach to the game.
Trotz had seen that tradition before, and thought that in his first season as the Capitals’ coach, it would work wonders to unify the locker room. Thus, he challenged a group of the veteran players to come up with a fitting honor — they settled on the persona of Honest Abe Lincoln, signifying an honest day’s work — and the tradition began on Oct. 11, when Washington won at Boston and Brooks Laich donned the regalia.
“I think every team does it, but I think it’s nice because usually, it’s not always about who scored or who had the highlight reel this or that,” said defenseman John Carlson, who wore it after a Jan. 10 victory over Detroit. “It’s more about an overall effort, and I think at the end of the day, guys really respect that overall effort. It’s nice to see maybe a guy that’s not going to be a star and maybe brings a little light on them to let them know how we feel about them, which is the most important thing.”
Every player has won the award this season except, possibly, defenseman Karl Alzner; once this season, after a home victory over the New York Islanders, the recipient of the honor was not disclosed.
Burakovsky, who donned the hat and beard for the first time on Wednesday, did not win it during the regular season. The team has published edited videos of the ceremony on its website during the postseason, and while players could be heard yelling in anticipation of Burakovsky’s speech near the end of the video clip, Burakovsky’s speech was not included.
But, players said after the game, the mild-mannered Burakovsky thanked Holtby for his effort, Gleason for his fight and teammates for blocking shots — as Beagle called it, “a typical Burakovsky speech.”
“Maybe acknowledging that makes that person feel rewarded, and quite often, those guys are some of the most-liked guys on the team — guys that guys really rally around,” Laich said. “It’s nice to see that guys who maybe won’t be in headlines in the newspaper or on the Internet, it’s nice to see them get rewarded internally within the locker room and have their efforts appreciated.”
The ceremony expanded after the conclusion of the regular season, when the coaching staff affixed an advent calendar to the wall of the dressing room that had a portrait of Lincoln broken into 16 smaller squares, signifying each victory on the way to hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Once the player is recognized by his teammates, he has approached the calendar and removed the next sticker, which, nearly halfway peeled, appears to show an iconic American photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal near the end of World War II.
It underscores the spirit of camaraderie, sacrifice and selflessness that the coach has hoped to instill among his players this season.
“I think guys honor that,” Trotz said. “They see that. They’re with those guys in the trenches every day, so I think that’s why you’d be surprised how many times that the guys that get the hat and the beard are not necessarily the guys that get the goals and the beard every night.”