Brent Burns, the San Jose Sharks' defenseman who is the favorite to win the Norris Trophy this season, has already earned plenty of accolades: four All-Star Game appearances, a World Cup win last summer, and a world championship gold medal from 2015. But five years ago the star defenseman earned a unique milestone that, for a time a least, was as cherished as anything from his career: a towel.
"Pumped for After Hours after the game tonight," Burns wrote in a tweet on December 17, 2011. "My old man pumped for his Hockey Night in Canada towel."
Hashtagged #littlethings, Burns was acknowledging a TV prop that for some players is the first "I've made it" moment of their NHL career.
To truly understand the honor of receiving the Hockey Night in Canada towels, it's important to first understand the importance of Hockey Night in Canada. First broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1952, and now on Sportsnet, the Saturday night NHL telecast is one of Canada's most revered institutions. The program's origins actually predate television. The original incarnation of the show was first broadcast on the radio in 1931. Since debuting on TV in 1952, the weekly telecast has become required viewing for most Canadians. For aspiring NHL players, it's typically their first glimpse into the National Hockey League.
Then there's the towels.
As with any live sports broadcast, player interviews on Hockey Night in Canada are a mainstay. These typically take place during intermissions as well as postgame. Each player interviewed is handed a simple white towel stitched with the Hockey Night in Canada logo. Slung over the shoulder of whichever player is appearing on camera that night, it's become an unexpected symbol of the show. And with only six towels being handed out each week (one each for the first intermission, second intermission and postgame in each game of the doubleheader), it's a true collector's item.
"I've always loved it. I've always been a big souvenir guy. I enjoy those things. Those are all big moments," said Burns. "You grow up and that's like church for you when you're a kid. You watch it on the weekend."
Burns wasn't exaggerating about his dad in that 2011 tweet. His father, Rob, confesses he has stolen at least five of his son's Hockey Night in Canada towels.
"It's very cool," said Rob Burns. "If I bring one out and my buddies are over, they go, 'Wow where did you get that?'"
For some players, the towel's significance is undeniable.
Daniel Winnik, then with the Toronto Maple Leafs, tweeted a photo of himself wearing his Hockey Night in Canada towel after a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on November 1, 2014. Along with the photo, Winnik mentioned he had "waited eight years to get this towel."
Waited 8 years to get this towel, great to get it on a night of a big win……. Oh and happy — Daniel Winnik (@Danwinnik34)November 2, 2014
"The towel is kind of a symbol that you've been on the big show, Hockey Night in Canada, that forever in our country has been the show of record," said Canadian broadcaster Scott Oake, who hosts the program's "After Hours" segment.
"I've encountered players over the years who have asked me if they can be the first-period interview so they can get the towel," said Oake. "I even had one or two players say to me, 'Can I be the first-period interview because my father wants a towel?'"
Many players from outside Canada who didn't grow up with the program don't feel quite so strongly about the towels. Even a number of players from Canada simply throw the towel in a hamper or box and typically forget about it. That indifference doesn't sit right with Rob Burns.
"That's like walking on the Shark logo in the dressing room," said Burns.
The first time he received a Hockey Night in Canada towel, Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic actually asked Oake to autograph it. A perfect complement to a popular piece of classic Canadiana.
"I used to watch it growing up on CBC. I used to see Scott Oake a lot," remembered Vlasic. "I asked him to autograph it for me. He was pretty surprised and pumped."
But Vlasic's enthusiasm for the towel ultimately waned over time. Before long, the autographed towel was relegated to the black hole of Vlasic's laundry rotation.
"To be honest, I have no idea where it is," said Vlasic. "I think I washed it, so his autograph may be disappeared. I may need another one."
Still, for many Canadian players, receiving the Hockey Night in Canada towel is a milestone moment. An unconventional acknowledgment that a player has made it to the big show. And in many cases the only people more excited than the player about receiving the towel are the parents.
"I had a lot of 'welcome to the league' moments. That was definitely a surreal one," Dallas Stars All-Star forward Tyler Seguin said of getting his first Hockey Night in Canada towel.
Seguin sent his first towel to his mother. It was still hanging in her bathroom when he went home last summer. Now that he has his own summer home, Seguin has made the Hockey Night in Canada towel a powder room staple.
"They're just cool to look at and realize you are living your dream," he said.
Former Hockey Night in Canada producer John Shannon told Sports Illustrated last year that the towels reached iconic status after the 94-95 lockout as the CBC looked to further promote its brand.
"We wanted Hockey Night in Canada all over the place," Shannon told Sports Illustrated.
The towels replaced the $75 appearance fee for players.
The value of the towel hasn't been lost on the show's producers. In fact, exact replicas of the iconic towels are now available on the official Hockey Night in Canada online store for $39.99.
The Hockey Night in Canada official website sells the towels for $39.99. Photo via HNIC website.
"The interview towel has become a rite of passage for professional hockey players," reads the site's ad copy. "Now fans can share in this uniquely Canadian tradition with this retail version."
And that's not the only way these towels have become available to the public.
"From time to time over the years those towels have appeared on eBay. How people get a hold of them I don't know," said Oake. "It's not quite like the Stanley Cup arriving in that case, but the towels are guarded in a similar fashion. It's not like we've got an endless supply in the city that we're broadcasting from."
The towels may have become a more and more iconic piece of sports memorabilia over the years. But for the players who actually jumped on that NHL ice and dabbed actual NHL sweat off their NHL forehead with the Hockey Night in Canada towel, buying one online isn't all that impressive.
"Doesn't count," said Seguin "You've got to earn it."
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