Kyle Connor was a better player than Jimmy Vesey this year. Let's get that out of the way first. Make any argument you want, 71 points is 71 points. Connor outscored Vesey by 25 points this season. 25 points total is a pretty good year for most players--30 points was enough to get a player into the top-100 nationally in scoring. Connor's +/- rating was 23 better than Vesey. Yes, that's an imperfect stat, but it's certainly not flawed enough to invalidate a disparity that significant.
I've been the first to point out how weak of a schedule Connor played. He only four games vs. NCAA Tournament teams compared to eight for Vesey. And I'll fully admit Vesey is the more complete player at this stage. None of that, or any other argument you want to throw together is enough to bridge the gap between their numbers.
So why did Vesey win? The difference was that Vesey was able to sell a more compelling narrative.
In February of this year, Vesey penned an article for the Players' Tribune. The Players' Tribune, for those not familiar, is an online outfit started by Derek Jeter with the stated mission of allowing athletes to tell their stories in their own words, to give fans "the real story". In practice, it's a website for empty PR puff pieces, usually ghostwritten by a real writer. It's People Magazine But For Sports.*
Vesey's piece was no exception.
Unless you really, really love cliches and want to read the whole thing, the article's two pull quotes give you the gist:
"I actually turned down my dream for another year of bus rides, dining hall food and homework. Pretty nuts, huh?"
"Some people might not have understood my decision to come back, but maybe they don’t fully understand what the college hockey experience is truly like."
Playing for Nashville was his dream. Like, when he was five years old and woke up at 3:30am to trudge three miles uphill to hockey practice while mom was busy baking apple pies, he would just keep repeating to himself, "Some day I will play on a line with Carrie Underwood's husband". But then some guy on his team scored a goal or something and in that exact moment he knew he could not sign that contract.
For an audience that wanted to believe it, it made for a pretty good story. Of course, we now know what the postscript was, and while I don't doubt that Vesey enjoyed his time at Harvard, we know the real reason he stayed.
Days after Vesey's season ended, and just a day after the final votes for the Hobey Baker were cast, Vesey's team of representatives informed Nashville that Vesey would not be signing with them without even giving Nashville the benefit of a meeting to present their case. After Nashville accused the Vesey camp of lying about Vesey's intentions throughout the year, Vesey's representatives fired back, basically admitting that if Vesey had any intention of signing with Nashville, he would have done so after his junior year. His senior year was less about getting his Harvard degree--he could have finished his coursework over summer courses, or worst case scenario, rolled the dice that the institution that's been around since 1636 with a $37B endowment was still in business when he finished his playing career--and less about whatever romantic notion of being a college athlete he wrote about as much as it was just not wanting to sign with Nashville.
Did Vesey's narrative make a difference in the final voting? Perhaps. One voter privately admitted that he would have voted differently if the Vesey/Nashville saga had played out the way it did before his final vote was cast. It likely affected other voters too, since there seemed to be little justification on the ice for the award to go the way it did.
None of this is Vesey's fault, of course, or anyone's really. Though it perhaps could have been handled better, Vesey was fully within his rights to explore his options in free agency. You can't blame Vesey's team of agents, who will be paid a nice sum once Vesey signs a contract, in part for that type of shrewd marketing of their client, potentially setting him up for those "off ice opportunities" he apparently couldn't have gotten in Nashville. You can't even really blame the voters. How were they supposed to know?
In the end, it is what it is. Any time something like this is held to a subjective vote, it allows for the possibility of narrative to creep in, and that certainly seemed to be the case here. It's a shame for Connor, who truly had a remarkable season, but he's got a bright future ahead. Who knows? Maybe this snub will be the start of Connor's own compelling narrative.
*Ironically, the University of Michigan entered into an exclusive partnership with the Players' Tribune this year, though the partnership only covered football, men's basketball, softball, and not men's hockey.