In recent years the Hobey Baker Award has taken voting to the masses, engaging college hockey fans by allowing them to vote in the first of three voting tiers, the one that whittles approximately 80 candidates down to 10 finalists. The reality is that the fan input is merely a tiny fraction of the weight of the college coaches, whose votes are the primary driver in the Hobey Award’s list of 10. But it’s fun, it keeps the debate lively and the process has prompted the energetic UMass marketing department to come up with a pin reminiscent of the “I Like Ike” political pin of yesteryear.
That initiated an intriguing Twitter exchange by two of college hockey’s premier national pundits, Adam Wodon and Nate Wells. Wodon remained in character—witty and sardonic— with his response to the UMass flashback to old politics.
No one in history ever voted for someone based on PR propaganda campaigns. Save your money, athletic departments. Or spend it on press box food instead. That's more likely to impress voters. https://t.co/jsRbAF9vff— Adam Wodon (@CHN_AdamWodon) February 17, 2019
And what self-respecting hockey writer wouldn’t prefer a ham sandwich to a bag of chips? But Wodon touched a nerve in the western hockey writers, who still feel Michigan’s Kyle Connor got jobbed in the 2016 Hobey voting, losing to Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey. Many felt that the eastern media bias weighed heavily in the voting. Vesey hoisted Hobey despite Connor outscoring him on the ice by a whopping 25 points. Wells used a little sarcasm to make his point.
And that's why we have Hobey Baker Award winner Kyle Connor.— Nate Wells (@gopherstate) February 17, 2019
Wodon concluded his end of the debate by saying the 2016 Hobey Award had nothing to do with athletic department propaganda. Or did it? Vesey’s choice to stick around for his senior year at Harvard, foregoing a lucrative offer from the NHL’s Predators, made him a media darling with the college hockey writers who are key voters in the latter two stages of the Baker Award.
But as the 2015-16 season wound down, Vesey wasn’t even in the top 15 NCAA scoring leaders, a big drop-off in production his season before. Many doubted whether he would even return as a Hobey Hat-Trick finalist. But then on Feb. 24, 2016, the popular website The Players’ Tribune featured its first story on a college hockey player—Jimmy Vesey. Close observers insist to this day that that particular story turned voting sentiment in Vesey’s favor. Asked if getting Vesey such an important forum was his doing, Brock Malone, then Harvard sports information director, smiled knowingly while he declared that he had “nothing to do with it.” The man nicknamed “Kingmaker” was unconvincing.
For college sports history buffs, this harkens back to the days of Heisman Trophy voting, when Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung won the 1956 Heisman despite mediocre stats, guiding ND to a forgettable 2-8 record in South Bend. But the Notre Dame sports information staff was a powerhouse, with direct lines to the Hearst and Pulitzer newspaper sports sections. Based on a wealth of relentless public relations, Hornung “stole” the ’56 Heisman much like Vesey made off with the Hobey 60 years later.
The moral of the story is to never underestimate the impact of a quality PR campaign when it comes to winning elections. And maybe the UMass sports information team is onto something—who amongst us has enough Cale in their lives?
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.