Alex Trebek’s NHL Draft appearance a courageous final act

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, shown presenting an award at the 46th annual Daytime Emmy Awards in Pasadena, Calif., has died, the show announced Sunday. He was 80. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, shown presenting an award at the 46th annual Daytime Emmy Awards in Pasadena, Calif., has died, the show announced Sunday. He was 80. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

  SportsNot

Alex Trebek, the beloved host of Jeopardy!, belonged to all of Canada, but the city of Ottawa will always remember him in a unique way.

Trebek, who died of pancreatic cancer on the weekend at the age of 80, put an exclamation mark on his Ottawa connections with his historic call of the Senator’s third overall draft pick at the 2020 NHL draft.

It speaks to the courage and determination of Trebek that he had the strength and will to perform this generous gesture while in the late stages of his battle with cancer. Trebek taped his draft calls just one week before the Oct. 6 virtual first round of the draft. He died on Nov. 8.

One month ago, the league, the Senators and Trebek himself did a masterful job of keeping this surprise cameo appearance a secret.

It went down like this. Instead of seeing Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion making the pick from the Senators war room, viewers saw a Jeopardy! visual and heard the familiar voice of Johnny Gilbert: “here is the host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek.”

At this point, many in the audience thought they had accidentally changed channels, from the draft to a Jeopardy! episode.

Except that Trebek was clearly on topic for a hockey bit. A hockey hit.

“Our category today is the NHL,” Trebek said. “And here is the clue for you.

“With the third pick in the 2020 NHL draft the Ottawa Senators choose this player. The correct response? Who is Tim Stuetzle?”

Then the Jeopardy! sign flashed again.

The video went viral.

It is worth going over once again how an ailing but game Trebek came to perform this act — sadly, one of his final acts, as it turned out.

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and his girlfriend, Shari Anderson of Ottawa, had hatched the plan months earlier. Senators president Anthony Leblanc told Sportsnet that Melnyk first spoke of the idea around the time of the draft lottery in June. Melnyk mentioned it again in September as the draft approached.

Behind the scenes, the Senators marketing and business offices made it happen. Tom Hoof, the new VP of marketing, contacted Sony, the Jeopardy! production company and the wheels began to turn.

“It was a very quick ‘yes’ from Mr Trebek and then it was just a matter of working through how these contracts get done,” Leblanc said.

Though Trebek generously donated his time without compensation, fees were involved in the trademark agreement for the music, among other details. The show’s director was part of the temporary production, and Gilbert, the announcer.

While taped in advance, the Trebek announcement had to be flexible enough to let hockey operations make the third overall pick. What if one of the top picks was traded in the moments before the selections?

Senators general manager Pierre Dorion told reporters the hockey organization received separate videos of Trebek announcing the expected top three picks of the draft. With Alexis Lafreniere a lock to go No. 1 to the New York Rangers, Ottawa’s choice was to be between forwards Quinton Byfield, who went No. 2 to the Los Angeles Kings and Stuetzle of Germany, who wound up a Senator, at No. 3.

Pre-taping has its risks. Leblanc later admitted he was terrified that with the push of a button, the wrong clip could be aired, announcing a different player than intended.

After NHL commissioner Gary Bettman introduced the moment by saying the pick would be announced by a “former University of Ottawa graduate,” Leblanc had another moment of panic inside the Senators’ war room. There was no audio on their computers and for a split second Leblanc thought: “Oh my God, this is running around the world with only video, no audio.”

Then he could draw a breath again as he realised the NHL had muted its audio to ensure there would be no background noise.

The moment came off without a hitch. And Twitter blew up. So did Leblanc’s phone.

“I’ve never been involved in a truly viral moment like this and it was just great to see the positivity that came from it,” Leblanc says. “One person said, I thought my kid sat on the remote control — I’m watching the draft and all of a sudden I’m watching Jeopardy!”

The Senators, of course, have had their share of negative viral social media events, whether from inside an Uber vehicle or a scheduled video segment. This was a dramatic change.

For his part, Dorion didn’t mind stepping aside to give Trebek the honour.

“We all think it’s fantastic to have someone like Alex Trebek announce the franchise-defining pick,” Dorion said. “I think it was something special.”

That it was.

And with his passing, the Senators joined the ranks of Trebek fans throughout the country and around the world who paid tribute to the legendary television host.

“Alex was a true and much beloved Canadian icon and a very special member of the Senators family,” said Melnyk in a statement.

“We will always be grateful to Alex for the special role he played in announcing the Senators’ first draft choice this year. For his legion of fans, Alex’s class and professionalism will endure as will his love for our game. Thank you, Alex, for your legacy. The Senators family and the entire National Capital Region will miss you.”

Outside the Canadian Tire Centre on Monday, the hockey club displayed an image of Trebek, wearing a Senators sweater, from one of his visits to a game here. His right arm is raised, thanking fans for their applause. Written next to the photo: “Thank you, Alex.”

Trebek, of course, has deep ties to Ottawa. Though he was born in Sudbury in 1940, Trebek first came to the Nation’s Capital at age 12, to study at a Catholic prep school. Not coincidentally, the school was situated on the campus of the University of Ottawa, where Trebek would soon be enrolled.

In 1961, Trebek graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy, while also cutting his teeth as a future broadcaster by being part of the university’s English Debating Society. His TV career began in Ottawa, doing news and weather reports from the network’s offices at the Chateau Laurier hotel.

Over the years, Trebek has been honoured with a Key to the City and has contributed close to $10 million to Ottawa U through support of the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue.

He is also an honorary president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and was on hand to open their new headquarters in 2018. The group’s mission is to help Canadians learn more about their country.

Remarking at the time that it was unfortunate all the Canadian NHL teams had been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Trebek quipped: “Thank God for the Raptors.”

In 2017, Trebek became an officer of the Order of Canada.

On social media, fans have been replaying their favourite Jeopardy! moments.

For fans of the Ottawa Senators, the moment was the night of Oct. 6, 2020 when the beloved TV host transported the NHL draft onto his own stage, with a video clip that will be replayed for decades to come.