Tragedies loom large at 2018 NHL Awards show

Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo spoke mournfully after the tragedy in Parkland, Florida. The NHL will honor that community, along with Las Vegas and Humboldt, at the NHL Awards this year. Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- Roberto Luongo walked around the table, shaking hands with each player wearing a vibrant yellow hockey sweater. Their honor in meeting an NHL star was reciprocated by the Florida Panthers goalie in meeting nine of the 13 surviving members of the Humboldt Broncos, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team whose bus was hit by a semitruck on April 6, killing 16 people.

These players were young, and they were survivors. Luongo couldn't help but think about others who fit the description.

Back in South Florida. Back in Parkland.

"It brought me back to what happened back home," Luongo said Tuesday in Las Vegas, site of Wednesday's NHL Awards, where the Broncos players have reunited for the first time since the crash. "It's obviously not the same kind of tragedy. But you see it in their faces. They've been through a lot. They've seen a lot. You just try to make them at ease as much as you can. It's not easy to do. But if even for a few moments you can, then you try. It's the least you can do. You try to put yourselves in their shoes. But it's impossible to do that."

Luongo has tried. On Feb. 22, eight days after 17 people were killed in a shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Luongo took the ice before the Panthers' game against the Washington Capitals to talk about a tragedy that literally hit home for the Parkland resident.

"To the families of the victims, our hearts are broken for you guys. There's not much to say. It's heartbreaking," he said mournfully. "You guys are in our thoughts. We've been thinking about you every day constantly for the last week. Just know that we're there for you if you guys need anything. You'll be in our prayers."

It was the second time in the NHL regular season that an active player grabbed a microphone and offered solemn words in support of a devastated community. Before the Golden Knights' first regular-season home game in franchise history, longtime Las Vegas resident Deryk Engelland reassured the fans that they were "Vegas Strong" days after a gunman left 58 people dead and 851 injured.

Broncos player Kaleb Dahlgren was asked about reuniting after their tragedy in a city that's still recovering from one of its own.

"Just being together, all of us, is something really special. And it's something you can't take for granted," he said. "Hockey is family. You grow up with them. You with them every day. So hockey is a family community."

The hockey family gathers annually for the NHL Awards. Large trophies that are subjectively voted on are handed out. Hacky jokes are told. Tuxedos are worn.

But this year, it's different. This year, the frivolity of the show is undercut by the gravity of the year that preceded it. The NHL was obligated to acknowledge it, and it chose a unique way to do so.

This year, there is no NHL Awards host. No actor cashing a paycheck. No comedian hired to read someone else's hockey jokes from a teleprompter. The show will be carried by NHL players, coaches and executives, some of whom have a connection to the tragedies that framed the season. Survivors and first responders from last October's Las Vegas shooting, members of the hockey team from Stoneman Douglas High School and surviving members of the Humboldt Broncos junior team will be recognized and honored at the event.

"It's unique. It's different. It's a tonal thing. But from the very beginning, there are going to be five players, coaches and managers that will be on stage and will tell you exactly why this is happening," said Steve Mayer, chief content officer for the NHL.

"Sometimes these shows become cookie-cutter. Admittedly, if the joke isn't funny, the next shot is the player sitting there stone-faced," he said. "The challenge is always about how to make it different. There are going to be moments when you're going to see people crying, and there are going to be moments when there are standing ovations."

That's where Luongo is, months after the tragedy in Parkland. Yes, there's mourning. Yes, there's still healing. But born from that tragedy was inspiration, in the defiant words and deeds of the Stoneman Douglas survivors whose activism has left Luongo in awe.

"The kids are working extremely hard to make sure that their voices are heard," he said. "The strength that they're showing is unbelievable. I'm just proud to be part of that community. They're relentless. They're not stopping. It's beautiful to see a generation like that, that knows what they want and how to accomplish it."

Luongo was especially impressed by the rallies around the country, and in particular in Washington, that the Parkland students took part in.

"It was amazing. I don't know how they do it, to be honest with you," he said. "I put myself back at 16, 17, 18 years old and I couldn't even talk in front of my class. It's amazing to have the courage to be up there and saying such beautiful things. Showing such power with their voices. It's remarkable to me."

As for the criticism of those efforts, Luongo said it's to be expected.

"Unfortunately, that's part of the world that we're living in today," he said. "At the end of the day, they're just trying to make the world a better place for everybody. That's the way I see it. There are always going to be people fighting back. But they don't care."

The healing continues. Vegas rallied around the remarkable playoff run of the Golden Knights, who honored those affected by the shootings throughout the season. The NHL and NHLPA announced an event on Aug. 24 in Humboldt when Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson brings the Stanley Cup there and players like St. Louis Blues center Brayden Schenn take part in on-ice activities with Broncos players. And in Parkland, Luongo says every day is another day closer to normalcy, if that's ever achievable.

"I know a lot of people have moved on from it, but back home it's still a daily thing for us. We hear about it every day. We talk about it every day. Whether it's on TV or walking into a store, it's all over the place," he said. "We do what we can to help. Sometimes it feels like it's not enough. We tried to heal as a community back home. We've taken some steps. But it's going to take a long time before we're back to where we were."