About 100 former NHL players, from Hall of Famers to those who sometimes played in the long shadows cast by the legends, will be saluted Monday when the NHL Alumni Association holds its 2017 awards gala and dinner in downtown Toronto.
Former Pittsburgh Penguins center and current Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux will be honored as the association's Keith Magnuson Man of the Year, the 16th former player so celebrated (all have been Hall of Famers). The award is named for the former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman and NHLAA executive board director who died in a car crash in 2003.
NHLAA senior director Wendy McCreary, director of the association's BreakAway Program that helps players transition into life after hockey, will be the first woman to receive the Keith McCreary 7th Man Award; it is named for her late father, the founder and first chairman of the NHLAA, which was formed in 1999.
Craig Cunningham, a former NHL forward who nearly died on the ice with Tucson of the American Hockey League last year, will be presented with the Ace Bailey Award of Courage, named for former NHL forward Garnet "Ace" Bailey, who died in an airplane in New York on 9/11.
And the hugely popular Canadian band The Tragically Hip will receive the inaugural Honorary Alumni award, which for one day gives an individual or group membership in the NHLAA without the honorees having played an NHL game.
The gala will be the first major NHLAA event under former NHL goaltender Glenn Healy, who was named executive director in June. Healy won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994 and played 15 seasons in the League.
Former players scheduled to attend the gala include former Toronto Maple Leafs and Rangers goalie Johnny Bower and Detroit Red Wings icon Ted Lindsay. Fellow Hall of Famers Paul Coffey, Rod Gilbert, Rod Langway, Bryan Trottier and Dave Andreychuk, the latter to be inducted Nov. 13, will also take part, as will scores of players whose accomplishments, large and small, will be celebrated.
Lemieux follows Yvan Cournoyer, a 10-time Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens, as the association's Man of the Year.
Healy said Lemieux accepted gracefully if a little grudgingly when informed he was being honored, saying, as Healy relates it, "I don't like to do these things."
"I told Mario, 'You're hockey royalty and you're the guy who should be it for the NHL's 100th year,' " Healy said. "He laughed and told me, "It's the only trophy I've won before Wayne (Gretzky)."
Video: Mario Lemieux scored 100 points 10 different times
Healy lauded McCreary for her work behind the scenes for the NHLAA, taking after her father.
"Wendy has taken more calls in the dead of night about players in peril and has helped more people in her life than I'd say anybody in the association," he said. "Her dad started our organization and she's worked tirelessly, fighting for every single person who's needed help."
The story of Cunningham, who went into full cardiac arrest on the ice before a game in Tucson on Nov. 19, 2016, touched the hearts of hockey and people far beyond it, his life saved by trainers, doctors and by firemen who incredibly happened to be members of a bagpipe and drum band performing the national anthem that night.
Cunningham, 27, had his left leg amputated but his courage and recovery have made for an inspiring story. In April, wearing a prosthetic leg, he returned to the ice for a skate with the help of physical therapists and former Tucson teammates.
"This kid, I tell you, all he wants to do is meet Mario," Healy said of Cunningham, who played 63 NHL games for the Boston Bruins and Arizona Coyotes between 2013-14 and 2015-16. "He'll be part of an NHL team again. He'll coach somewhere, someday."
Healy said there was no second choice for the Honorary Alumni award, The Tragically Hip having been selected weeks lead singer Gord Downie died of brain cancer last Tuesday at age 53. Downie, Healy recalled, would drive from Kingston, Ontario, to the summer skates of various NHL players, sleeping in his car, hoping to find a spot to play.
"It's hard to play one game in the NHL," Healy said. "This world has given so much back to hockey, why not honor those who have helped along the way? The Hip have done [a lot] for hockey in so many different ways. They're the first Honorary Alumni of what will be many."