Commentary

Perfect timing for awards' Vegas debut

Updated: June 17, 2009, 9:55 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Could the National Hockey League have picked a better summer to step outside the box and move its annual awards ceremony to the city that never sleeps?

Fresh off a stellar playoff season that concluded with a nail-biting seven-game Stanley Cup finals series between Pittsburgh and Detroit and just days after a huge victory in the legal battle over the future of the Phoenix Coyotes, the league will try to spice up its image even further with a couple of days in the desert celebrating its finest.

Here's hoping this desert experiment goes better than the one in Phoenix thus far. But we digress.

Credit NHL chief operating officer John Collins, who cut his teeth in the NFL and embraces the "thinking big" approach of doing business that has sometimes escaped the NHL, for transporting the awards show from Toronto to Vegas for what is expected to be a three-year run, longer if the event gains the kind of traction Collins envisions.

Collins has been a force behind the Winter Classic games in Buffalo and Chicago, events that already have become staples on the national sporting scene with impressive television ratings and significant buzz surrounding them. The move to Vegas is his baby, too.

Traditionally, the awards show has been an afterthought on the NHL schedule, wedged between the end of the Stanley Cup finals and the annual draft, and its profile in Toronto was low.

Collins won't criticize the previous awards shows, but he told ESPN.com this week, "We just felt there was an opportunity to do something more.

"We're building our muscles in terms of being able to stage these events ourselves."

At the Palms Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where the awards show will be held Thursday, the NHL gets top billing on the marquee in front. Inside, posters and banners announce that this is the NHL's short-term home.

Although the awards show is the centerpiece of the occasion -- Collins said the players are the royalty of the event -- the NHL has worked hard to expand the scope of the proceedings to include sponsors, team officials, players and alumni, groups that weren't necessarily part of the mix in Toronto.

"This is our first real opportunity to create a significant hospitality event [around the awards]," Collins said.

The NHL has essentially taken over production of the awards show; it has sold the ads and brought in sponsors, allowing the league the kind of creative control it might not have had otherwise.

Andre Mika, who produced Live Earth -- one of the largest multimedia events ever, with 156 musical acts -- has been brought in to produce the show. Sources close to the event say the NHL has had a better-than-normal response from current and former players.

Celebrities from nearby Hollywood are expected to take part, including rabid hockey fan Snoop Dogg, Michael Bublé and actors William Fichtner and Lauren Holly. Plus, those who can't attend, such as hockey fan Denis Leary, will provide taped segments. Mark Messier, Luc Robitaille, Pat Burns, Pat LaFontaine and Stan Mikita will be on hand, as well.

Collins acknowledged that the awards event should benefit from a strong finish to the postseason and provide a nice bridge to the NHL draft next week in Montreal.

Another reason the desert experiment has some legs this year is that the players are holding their annual meeting in Vegas the two days after the awards. That means some 125 players will be in the area discussing pressing issues, including drug testing, staged fights and fighting in general, and the salary cap.

NHL Players' Association spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon told ESPN.com that the players had planned to meet in Las Vegas before the awards show was announced but that the two dovetail nicely. He said players have been enthusiastic about the league's decision to move the show to Vegas, believing it will help the league's profile, which, in turn, helps strengthen the players' position as they share in all hockey-related revenues.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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