Autograph seekers, media, hockey royalty rub shoulders at NHL Awards

Hockey's royalty gathered in Toronto Thursday night for the 2008 NHL award ceremony, but before Henrik Zetterberg, Alexander Ovechkin and Nick Lidstrom made it through the doors of the Elgin Theatre, they had to run a gauntlet of rowdy hockey fans along the red carpet on Yonge Street.

"I'm your biggest fan!" a young man screamed in Henrik Zetterberg's ear.

Hockey's royalty gathered in Toronto Thursday night for the 2008 NHL award ceremony, but before Zetterberg, Alexander Ovechkin and Nick Lidstrom made it through the doors of the Elgin Theatre, they had to run a gauntlet of rowdy hockey fans along the red carpet on Yonge Street.

Many had waited hours for a glimpse of their heroes - fans like six-year-old, Alexandre Drouin, who got up at 5 a.m. to catch a train from Montreal with his mother Nathalie.

"I am a crazy mom," said Nathalie.  As Alexandre doodled the Montreal Canadiens' logo in a notebook, his mother revealed they were hoping to get an autograph from Montreal Canadiens' coach Guy Carbonneau.

Carbonneau was nominated for the Jack Adams award, as most outstanding coach. Unfortunately, he breezed by without signing, but Nathalie was not deterred. She recognized former Toronto Maple Leaf Darryl Sittler and snagged not only an autograph but also a picture. 

Suddenly there was a buzz in the crowd. Cries of "Marty! Marty!" pierced the air.  The New Jersey Devils' star netminder Martin Brodeur strolled along the carpet. Brodeur was nominated for the Vezina Trophy as best goaltender. Nathalie had a special strategy to get his attention.  She spoke to him in his native tongue. "Martin, on est de Montreal!!!" (Martin, we're from Montreal) she yells out.

It briefly worked, Brodeur turned toward Nathalie and Alexandre, but then turned away. "Can't win them all," shrugged Nathalie.

Other fans had different ways of getting autographs. One carried a handmade sign, which read "Hockey is Heaven and Ovechkin is my God."  Another held a sign with the words: "87 take me to Heaven."  She wouldn't be going anywhere with Sidney Crosby. 

The Penguins captain wasn't nominated for an award. He wasn't even here.  That would also disappoint 12-year-old Brett Hills of Whitby, Ont., who clutched a Crosby jersey. He'd painted his bedroom in Pittsburgh Penguin colours and has waited in line for more than five hours. "He'll be really upset, he'll be crushed if he doesn't see Crosby," said his 19-year-old sister Suzanne, who escorted him to Toronto.                                                                                                             One young woman near the front of the line got several autographs. It was hard for the players to miss her. She wore a skimpy top with her assets on display. Another wears a tube top with a Toronto Maple Leafs logo on it.  

But even the media have to resort to unusual methods to cut through the clutter and get the players' attention for interviews. Launy Schwartz wore a beat up old black hockey helmet on his head as he did on-camera interviews for a hockey website. Imagine Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada dusting off his helmet for pre-game interviews!

Fourteen-year-old Shayne Flood and his buddy 13-year-old Brad Yapsam were first in line. They waited more than eight hours, and had a different approach - good manners.

"We are polite. We say, Mr. Lidstrom can you sign this please?" said Yapsam. It worked. The boys snagged several autographs, including Lidstrom's and Dominik Hasek's.

Shayne's Mom, Vicky Owen snapped pictures for posterity. She's given her son permission to skip school.  "He is the biggest hockey fan I know. I think he could skate before he could walk," she said.

The highlight of her night wasn't meeting a hockey player.  She had her picture taken with Alan Doyle, singer of Great Big Sea 

Suddenly some one yelled out "It's Crosby!"  Hundreds of heads turn. A young woman jabs her autograph binder into my back in an effort to see hockey's superstar. (She will do this several times during the evening.)  There is no Crosby. It's a joke. But no one laughs. Then someone whispers, the lead singer of Rush, Geddy Lee is in attendance. Heads crane. Another false rumour. 

Jennifer Cummings of Toronto is petite but packs a powerful voice. She's there with her 11-year-old son Michael, who is shy compared with his Mom.

Suddenly Washington Capital Alexander Ovechkin is in sight. The crowd starts to chant "O-V, O-V, O-V."  Cummings not only picks up the chant, she pumps her fist in the air to the beat.

"Ovechin over here!" she yells. Cummings may be tiny, but she's tough. She works her autograph book through the maze of pens and pads, and gets several signatures for her son.

Of course, veteran autograph hunters know the front of the line is not the place to be.

About a dozen signature-seekers have been staked out at the back of the theatre most of the afternoon. This is where the NHL stars sneak in the building. Away from the screaming crowds.

Jack Robinson is the Chief Operating Officer of the CN Tower, but Thursday he was Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk's chauffeur. 

There are no fancy limos for the players. Robinson transported them in a golf cart. He drove the players back and forth from their hotel. There's no pay involved. Robinson admitted he's wasn't even sure who they were.

"I'm more of a baseball guy," he revealed.

Robinson says he doesn't talk to the players unless they talk to him, but the autograph seekers do. They chased Robinson's golf cart up the street, yelling out Malkin and Datsyuk's names.  And when the golf cart came to a red light, they pounced, getting signatures from the Russian stars. Andrew Chan says he yelled Malkin's nickname "Gino" to get his attention and get his hockey card signed.

"It worked, he smiled," says Chan.     Ryan Waszczuk uses a more direct approach "Can I please, please get your autograph?" he bleats out.      Back at the front of the building, the crowd lets out a gasp. Several members of the Detroit Red Wings have emerged from the theatre with a special treat.      Red Wings captain Nick Lidstrom carried hockey's holy grail, the Stanley Cup, above his head for the fans to see. He was joined by teammates Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg as well as Detroit coach Mike Babcock, and hockey legend Scotty Bowman who stopped several times to sign autographs.

But perhaps the biggest name of all was the easiest autograph to get … well, sort of. 

Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, was honoured with the NHL's new lifetime achievement award. The award had been kept secret. Few knew Howe was even in the building until he appeared during the show's broadcast on CBC TV.  Reporters were not allowed to interview Howe. 

At the end of the night, word spread on the street behind the theatre. Autograph hunters gathered. Police were on hand to contain the crowd.  Suddenly, Howe emerged, surrounded by a posse of handlers.

"Gordie! Gordie!" the autograph hounds shouted. But the 80-year-old was sheltered from the mob, and directed into a van with tinted windows.  The fans were disappointed until an assistant handed out pre-signed hockey cards with Howe's signature on them. The fans may not have got personal signed autographs, but they did actually witness a hockey legend in the flesh.