Hockey lost a great friend with the death of Trebek, the legendary host of the game show “Jeopardy!” who died Sunday of pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
“Alex was a passionate fan of our game and a true friend of our league,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “He always said yes when hockey called. We will miss him and send our condolences to his family and millions of friends and fans.”
Hockey flowed through the veins of Trebek, a Sudbury, Ontario, native and University of Ottawa graduate whose roots were clear to all during the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft on Oct. 6.
Held virtually due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, Trebek surprised and delighted fans and League executives watching on TV by announcing the selection of German forward Tim Stuetzle by the Ottawa Senators with the No. 3 pick, doing so in a “Jeopardy!” Q&A format.
At that point, Trebek was in the final stages of his battle with cancer.
Steve Mayer, who engineers many of the NHL’s marquee events as the League’s chief content officer, took no credit for Trebek’s appearance that night.
“(Senators owner) Eugene Melnyk called me to say, ‘I have an idea for Alex to do the draft pick,'” Mayer said. “We were like, ‘Of course, that’s fantastic.’ The Senators made the arrangements and Alex was so into it. It had to be one of the last on-camera things he did.”
The Senators had a very firm idea of the three players they might select, Mayer said, so Trebek recorded selections to cover every possibility.
It was entertainment and business tycoon Howard Baldwin, who founded the WHA’s New England Whalers and owned the team when it became the NHL’s Hartford Whalers, who brought Trebek into the NHL family in 2016.
Baldwin suggested to Mayer, shortly upon the latter joining the League, that he reach out to Trebek for a chat.
“I’d never met Alex before I came to the NHL, though obviously I’d admired him like nobody’s business,” Mayer said. “Howard said to me one day, ‘You should call Alex Trebek. He’s a huge hockey fan and every time I’m with him, he’s always talking about wanting to do more with the League.'”
So Mayer picked up the phone and immediately hit it off with Trebek.
“Alex was the nicest man in the world,” Mayer said. “He just wouldn’t stop talking about his love of the game. I told Alex that we were going to be doing some things in the NHL’s 2017 Centennial year and that we’d really love his participation. He said, ‘Just call on me whenever you want.'”
Trebek would host one of the segments of The NHL 100, a Centennial gala held at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2017, to showcase many of the League’s 100 Greatest Players.
“That was the first time we actually met,” Mayer said. “Alex was like a kid in a candy store at the cocktail party before the gala when we gathered all the players at the theater. I remember watching him work that room, going up to people saying, ‘Hi, my name is Alex,’ as if people wouldn’t know who he was. You’d have the greatest players in the history of the game going, ‘Oh my God, Alex Trebek!’ He knew many of them from having been around the game for so long.
“Our players were blown away that Alex was in the room with them. Rock stars want to be athletes and athletes want to be rock stars. There was no place he’d rather have been that night.”
Mayer would again reach out in 2019, when he asked Trebek, by then in delicate health, whether he’d want to present the Hart Memorial Trophy at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas on June 19. Touched by the invitation, Trebek graciously declined, having already scheduled a trip to Alaska.
But then Mayer’s phone rang at home in early June.
“It’s from a California number, so I answer it,” he recalled. “The voice says, ‘Steve, Alex Trebek here, how’re you doing my boy? I want to check on something. … Is that offer still open for me to come to the NHL Awards and hand out the Hart?’
“He told me he had to cancel his trip for various reasons and said, ‘There’s nothing more that I’d like than to come to your show.’ I just said, ‘You’re in, let’s do it, yeah.’
“That Alex called me back shows you how much he wanted to do things in his last years … (things) that were passions for him. He came to that show and he was absolutely incredible around our current players. The night of the show was my 25th wedding anniversary and he did a video for me and my wife. It was pretty cool.”
Baldwin is grateful that he could bring Trebek and the NHL together, his own relationship with the TV star having begun purely by chance around seven years ago.
Baldwin’s wife, Karen, and Trebek’s wife, Jean, had been good friends in grade school on Long Island. Life took them in different directions until decades later, when they wound up in the same line in a Los Angeles post office.
“Karen looked at this woman who she was sure she recognized,” Baldwin said. “She said, ‘Jeannie? Oh my God.’ They burst into tears, reconnected and Alex became a great friend of mine and ours.
“Karen knew that Jeannie had married Alex and Jeannie knew that Karen had married a dope like me,” Baldwin joked. “Alex loved his hockey and he loved Gordie Howe. I introduced Alex to Steve Mayer, who was so terrific with Alex, as was Gary Bettman. He cherished memories of The NHL 100 gala and the 2019 Awards.”
Two years ago, for Trebek’s 78th birthday, Baldwin contacted Mark and Marty Howe, two of Gordie’s sons and former members of the Whalers, and they sent a couple pieces of memorabilia for the celebration.
“Of all the things Alex got, he just loved those the most,” Baldwin said. “I spoke to Alex maybe three weeks ago to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ He loved hockey and everything it represented. He was a good Canadian boy, and who in Canada doesn’t love the NHL and hockey, right?”
Mayer says he will miss a good friend. So too, he said, will the NHL.
“Alex lived an amazing life,” he said. “I think everybody was prepared, they knew this was inevitable. I welcome having had my personal moments with him. He was such an outstanding person. He was truly a huge hockey fan. Whenever he was around our players, it was mutual admiration. The players were as excited to meet Alex as he was to meet them.”