He was the biggest signing of the Philadelphia Flyers’ 2019 offseason, a free-agent diamond. But Kevin Hayes has established himself as a man of the people in the City of Brotherly Love.

On Monday, Hayes was named the 2020 recipient of the Gene Hart Memorial Award. Board member Joe Fisher of the Philadelphia Flyers Fan Club announced the award, presented annually to the player who demonstrates the most ’heart’ during the season.

Hayes dethrones Sean Couturier, the winner in 2018 and 2019. Three other active Flyers are also past winners:

Heart isn’t an easy quality to define. New Flyers’ head coach Alain Vigneault found a way to get the idea across when he addressed his players early in training camp last September. With the NHL Network’s cameras rolling for Behind The Glass, Vigneault notoriously established his team’s identity when he told his group, “Be a ****** Flyer.”

What Is Heart?

As the year went on, no player embodied that attitude better than Hayes.

Alarm bells sounded last June when the Flyers signed the then-27-year-old to a seven-year contract worth a whopping $50 million. The team had acquired his rights from the Winnipeg Jets two weeks earlier, in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. There was legitimate reason for concern.

Hayes had failed to be a difference-maker as a trade-deadline acquisition for the Jets. He managed three points in six playoff games as Winnipeg was then eliminated by the St. Louis Blues. The Jets and Blues both entered the playoffs with 99 points, but Winnipeg was seeded higher. Home-ice advantage was moot, though. The road team won five of six games in the series, and the Blues went on to win the Stanley Cup.

But while coaching the New York Rangers, Vigneault had carefully brought Hayes along during his first four NHL seasons. Hayes consistently delivered about 40 points each year while gradually seeing his two-way responsibilities and total ice time increase.

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In his first year in Philly, the hard-working pivot partnered with Selke Trophy candidate Couturier to help the Flyers become one of the league’s better teams on the penalty kill (11th overall) and in goals against (7th overall). They led the NHL in the faceoff circle (54.6%, Hayes was 50.2%). Hayes tied for the league lead with four shorthanded goals.

Before the beginning of the regular season, Hayes was named to the Flyers’ leadership group. He wore an ‘A’ on his jersey for the first time in his career along Couturier and Voracek and beside captain Giroux.

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All Work And All Play

Hayes’ hard-working approach on the ice was balanced by a lighthearted, larger-than-life personality. Teammates, fans and media members howled at his antics in the dressing room, in front of a microphone and even on the ice.

On Wednesday, Hayes joined a group of his teammates on the ice at the Flyers’ practice facility in Voorhees, N.J.

Last Monday, a tentative agreement was reached between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association on return-to-play protocols and an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Player voting is expected to wrap up on Friday. Only a simply majority (50% + 1) is required to ratify the agreement. It seems all-but-inevitable that formal training camps will kick off on Monday.

After camp concludes, the Flyers will relocate to Toronto in late July. They’ll play their three-game round-robin series against the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals to shake off the rust. Then, the ‘real’ playoffs begin in August.

The Flyers sat sixth overall in the NHL standings by points percentage (.645) when the NHL paused its season in March. As Vigneault’s systems took hold, they were also the hottest team in the league. Philadelphia was riding a 9-1-0 streak in its last 10 games and was 14-4-0 since February 1.

Momentum can certainly evaporate during a four-and-a-half-month layoff. But with the improvement they showed and the heart and leadership of players like Hayes, the Flyers could well be one of the last teams standing when an unprecedented Stanley Cup Final is held this September and October.

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