With good humour, Canadiens defenceman Raphael Diaz accepts his trophy Tuesday at the Bell Sports Complex.
It began as a gag, of course.
But on Tuesday in the Canadiens’ Brossard dressing room, defenceman Raphael Diaz graciously and good-naturedly accepted a modest trophy for his achievements in Switzerland during the NHL’s four-month lockout.
It was hardly the Art Ross Trophy for the NHL’s leading point-scorer, or the Maurice Richard Trophy for the man who scores the most goals.
Rather, it was billed, as it was born on Twitter, as the #Habs D In Switzerland Scoring Race (for points, in fact, not goals), and if Diaz knew there was a trophy of sorts coming, he might not have come into the dressing room on Tuesday after training-camp practice.
When Diaz and fellow Habs rearguard Yannick Weber headed to their native Switzerland a week after the NHL declared the lockout, a scoring race was underway.
Neither player knew it. But I recognized a good duel when I saw one, advertising it as such on Twitter after the friends had played just one game each in their Swiss A League adventure.
Diaz returned during the lockout to EV Zug, the team whose system had nurtured him since he was a boy, the club from which he came in the fall of 2011 to begin his NHL career.
Weber, meanwhile, signed with Genève-Servette, up the road from where he had practised during the summer in Bern, aware that it was in his best interests to play some quality hockey during an NHL work stoppage.
Both played their first Swiss League games on Sept. 22. Diaz held without a point while registering four shots on goal in a 6-3 victory; Weber scored on a power-play slapper, took a penalty and recorded six shots in a 2-1 win.
(Centreman David Desharnais, a later arrival in the Swiss League with the Fribourg squad, was not eligible for the award by virtue of his position.)
“No, no, there’s no competition,” Diaz said with a laugh when we spoke a day later. “I’m happy for Yannick for every goal he scores. It’s good for everybody. We want to prepare for Montreal, for when the season starts.”
I didn’t have the heart to mention the race to Weber when we spoke for a column in mid-December, Diaz by then comfortably in front and both players to suit up just a couple more times before the holidays, the lockout’s resolution and their return to Montreal.
In the end, Diaz would play 32 games for Zug, scoring seven times, assisting 22 times for 29 points with 12 penalty minutes, a terrific plus-19 and 71 shots on goal.
Weber played 32 games as well, scoring five times with 16 assists for 21 points, with a healthy 40 penalty minutes, a minus-1 rating and 106 shots on goal.
Diaz enjoyed a three-assist game on Oct. 13 and even had a nine-game point streak going that month.
Weber had a two-goal game on Oct. 2 and a two-assist effort on Oct. 30. He lost his mind, at least in the eyes of the officials, in his other most-noteworthy game, drawing eight penalty minutes in his second match.
There had to be an award for the winner of this low-key race, and a Swiss Army knife seemed too cliché.
Much more cliché than the fancy brass Swiss cowbell I found at a shopping centre antique sale a few months ago, a frilly leather strap and small brass depictions attached of a hiker and his dog, and a cow.
The $45 price tag was reduced to $40 when the bewildered merchant – “Seriously, that’s what it’s for?” he said – was told where his bell ultimately was headed.
Then, as Diaz flew back to Montreal, I visited Trophées Pointe Claire in the Valois village and explained the story to shop proprietor Mario Dupras.
Dupras didn’t even blink. For 10 bucks, he engraved the plaque you read in the photo below, illustrating these words, and cemented it to the strap.
And then poor, earnest, unaware Diaz walked into the Canadiens dressing room early Tuesday afternoon for a chat with journalists, after which I sprung the $50 bell and the story on him.
To his credit, the affable 27-year-old seemed genuinely pleased, almost touched, by the award. He insisted it would be displayed in the trophy room his parents have back home in Switzerland, though I considered checking garbage cans in the arena before I left for the day.
“But I hope I never win it again,” Diaz said with a laugh.
I was insulted for a moment, until I realized he meant that he hopes his Swiss A League days are behind him and that he’ll never again be locked out by the NHL.
That, or he was deep down truly appalled at his cowbell award (though it is one of a kind), for which I furnished a bag so he could take it away without notice, having stuffed the bell with a paper towel to silence the clapper.
Below: the plaque on the Raphael Diaz’s scoring championship “trophy,” a Swiss cowbell bought for $40 at a shopping-mall antique sale.