When I was a young Leaf fan back in the very early 1960s, I heard about this “award” that Maple Leaf players would receive. It was called the J.P. Bickell (Memorial) Trophy.
Hockey fans knew about the “ Norris” (best defenseman) the Vezina (goalie with the best goals against in those days), the Hart (MVP) and Calder (best rookie). As important as they were, they were dispensed by the League itself those. Important, for sure, but the Bickell was for Maple Leafs—only.
Now, what was different about this award is that it wasn’t awarded every year. In fact, when it was awarded, it was not even necessarily awarded to a player.
What I came to understand way back then is that this was something pretty special. Whether anyone would receive the award in any given year was/is apparently up to the Maple Leaf hockey club Board of Directors. It was/is given to a player or member of the organization that had demonstrated excellence over a period of time.
I remember that Dave Keon won it in the early ‘60s. He was my favorite player so that stood out at the time. Johnny Bower won it a few times in the ‘60s, as well. Through the years, some of the best-known Maple Leafs of all-time have received the prestigious “Bickell” award, including Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong, Bobby Pulford, Allan Stanley, Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuk—each one a Hall-of-Famer.
Some lesser-known but gritty and productive Leafs have also earned this designation, including Tod Sloan and Bobby Baun. (Goaltenders Harry Lumley and Mike Palmateer also each won it once.)
In the more modern era, winners have included Doug Gilmour, Curtis Joseph and Mat Sundin, all special Maple Leafs. Maple Leaf legend Bob Davidson (long-time player and scout) and Pat Quinn (player, coach and GM) earned the award for their non-playing efforts.
The fact that it is a discretionary award, if I can call it that, and is not handed out every year means it is even more special when someone is given the Bickell.
Now, I realize, when looking at the list of people who have won it, you can fairly say that it requires an extraordinary effort to be considered for the Bickell. And I could be wrong, but I don’t believe it was been awarded since 2003 (Quinn).
Given how high the bar has been set through the years, should there be a winner this year? Who—if anyone—is deserving?
I’m going to put two names forward, though I realize the season is far from over and I’m not even certain the Leafs will make the playoffs. (I raise this because an argument can certainly be made that no one should win the award if the team was not good enough to even qualify for a 16-team post-season.)
But here’s my thought. This is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004. There were times this season when it looked as though they were heading nowhere but toward a draft lottery position in the standings.
That said, two guys, for me, have been consistently there, almost night in and night out, and without them, the Leafs (and yes, Reimer’s efforts as well over the past few weeks) would not even be where they are now- Tim Brent and Mikhail Grabovski.
I think of Grabovski not only because of his obvious consistent offensive production (on a team that has often struggled because of a lack of exactly that). But I love the fact that he re-dedicated himself this past off-season and that he has maintained a great attitude throughout this season. He has continued to work hard and many nights has placed the team on his back And even though he is not a big guy, he goes to the net and has played with more toughness than I thought he had.
Importantly, he has made the players around him better.
Personally, though, I would give this award to Brent. Few expected him to even make the team last fall. At the beginning of the season it looked like it was a situation where he would stay up for a few games and then head back to the Marlies.
But he just kept working hard. His minutes increased. He has often chipped in offensively with some big plays. He took draws, killed penalties, played hard and smart, blocking shots and doing the little things that teammates appreciate.
He has been a heart and soul player, and that’s what the Bickell is reserved for.
So there’s a ways to go, but if I had a vote, I would go with Brent, because, when no one expected it, he has shown the kind of heart and determination that have always been the traits exemplified by the Leafs who have won this award.