While most professional leagues acknowledge sportsmanship with some type of award, the NHL does it with a particular panache and lore. Even the name, Lady Byng, adds style points.
The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy is awarded to the NHL player judged to "exhibit the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."
There's the panache: You not only act like a class act, you have to be good to great on the ice. There's no player in the NHL who doesn't want to be associated with previous winners: Wayne Gretzky, Stan Mikita, Mike Bossy, Joe Sakic, Dave Keon, Pavel Datsyuk, Martin St. Louis, Anze Kopitar and NHL Seattle's Ron Francis, who won the Lady Byng three times (1995, 1998 and 2002). Francis also won the Frank Selke Trophy for best defensive forward in 1995.
"As a kid growing up, I got the hockey trading cards and chewed the bubblegum," says Francis. "They issued cards honoring the NHL award winners. That's when I first learned about the Lady Byng. Any time you are singled out among peers [in Francis' case, the league's top players] in such a team sport, it's gratifying. I always wanted to exemplify sportsmanship in the way I played-to be an extremely competitive guy looking to be successful and win."
The trophy's history exudes additional class. It reaches back to 1925 when Marie Eyelyn Byng, the wife of the Governor General, donated the trophy to honor her husband, Lord Byng whose formal title and full name, Viscount Julian Hedworth George Byng, was no doubt tough to fit on a trophy. She intended for the trophy to be awarded to the "the best sportsmanship and most gentlemanly player." The trophy was renamed "The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy" when she died in 1949.
Before becoming Governor General, Julian Byng was commander of the Canadian Corps during World War I while Marie Evelyn Byng converted their home into a 30-bed hospital for wounded soldiers. The couple was designated Lord and Lady Byng in 1919, honoring Julian Byng for his leadership at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in northern France, capturing previous German-held ground. WWI historians factor the victory to superior planning and tactical moves.
Lady Byng was a hockey fan who enjoyed following now legendary players such as King Clancy and Frank Boucher who played for the first version of the Ottawa Senators. She attended NHL games on many Saturday nights and took private skating lessons.
For his part, Boucher won the trophy seven times in eight seasons from 1928 to 1935. Lady Byng told Boucher to just keep the trophy in 1935; she donated a second one to the NHL that still serves as the authentic trophy for this award.
The award can be transformative for some players. The late Stan Mikita started his Hall of Fame Chicago Blackhawks career as combative young player from Czechoslovakia who helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 1961 and inspired a generation of more Czech players entering the NHL. Mikita played with intensity and, well, a bit extra that referees tended to notice. He racked up 149 penalty minutes (PIM) in the 1963-64 season and another 154 PIM in 1964-65.
During the early part of the 1966-67, Mikita's six-year-old daughter, Meg, sent him Byng-bound. Watching a game in which her father was penalized, Meg posed a logical question to Mikita post-game: "Daddy, when that guy in the stripes blew the whistle, why did Uncle Bobby [Hull] go sit with his friends and you went all the way across the ice and sat by yourself"
Mikita told Sportsnet's Dave Zarum in 2012. "And I almost cried, because as a six-year-old, she knew better than I did."
Mikita changed his ways and quieted the ref whistles, plus significantly upped his game. He notched only 12 penalty minutes in 1966-67 and 14 the following season. He won the Lady Byng both seasons, along with the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP and he snagged league scoring titles both years (which pre-dated the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy for top scorer, otherwise you could say he twice won a hat trick of trophies).
Recent winners of the Lady Byng include Ryan O'Reilly (as part of the Colorado Avalanche), the aforementioned Anze Kopitar (LA), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary), William Karlsson (Vegas) and last year's winner Aleksander Barkov (Florida). All are legitimate candidates to win a second Byng. Other players among scoring leaders with low penalty-minutes totals and high-end reputations include Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado), Artemi Panarin (NYR), Elias Pettersson (Vancouver) and Washington's John Carlson, who would be a rare Byng winner as a defenseman.