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NHL All-Star Wrap-up: 25 Reasons to Love the Game

Did Columbus manage to pull off a miracle? The actual game was awful, but did the rest of the weekend make up for it?

I’m not a huge fan of NHL All-Star Weekend. You probably got that impression from last week’s post, in which I spent roughly 3,000 words listing some of the event’s biggest problems. Let’s just say that was the edited version.

Shortly after that post went live, I was on a plane to Columbus, site of this year’s game. By the time I’d touched down and checked into my hotel, All-Star Weekend had managed to get even worse with news that a pair of the game’s biggest stars, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, had pulled out. Erik Johnson soon followed. The whole thing was shaping up as a disaster.

But over the course of the weekend, I spoke to a few people who’d read last week’s post. And while they generally agreed with the points I’d made, they all gave me the kind of side-eye that suggested I may have gone Krusty Burglar on the whole concept. So for today’s post, I’m going to switch lanes. We’re going positive. Nothing but nice. I am going to make 25 observations about an All-Star Weekend spent in Columbus, and they will all be positive, damn it.

Never let it be said I don’t challenge myself as a writer. Let’s put on our happy faces and do this.

Friday Afternoon: Media Day

Media day is a two-hour affair that sees most of the players led out to podiums where they could take questions from the media and/or stare into the distance while awkwardly waiting for someone to notice them.1


1.

Sorry, Mike Hoffman.

No. 1 — Captain Nick Foligno: The announcement that Foligno would be captain of one of the teams raised some eyebrows. While he’s having a decent season and plays for the host team, the Blue Jackets winger isn’t exactly a household name, and you had to wonder if the NHL would have been better served with a bigger star.

But Foligno was having fun with the role, and he had been ever since he was told he’d be captain.2 That was especially true for his most visible role of the weekend: making his team’s picks during Friday night’s All-Star draft. A few hours before draft time, he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to bother meeting with his assistants, Drew Doughty and Patrick Kane, but figured he could draw on his fantasy football experience if needed. (He joked that he might cross names out of a magazine.)


2.

That’s right: told. He informed reporters that nobody had actually bothered to ask him if he wanted the job.

This was actually the second straight All-Star Game for which Foligno played for the host team. Three years ago,3 he was a depth guy on the Senators when the game came to Ottawa. I asked him if, back then, he saw himself being named All-Star captain the next time around. He laughed and admitted he did not.


3.

There was no All-Star Game in 2013 because of the lockout, or in 2014 because of the Olympics.

Not too many fans did either, even as recently as a week ago. But Foligno is a likable guy who has been through a lot in recent years, and it was nice to see him get some national recognition.

No. 2 — Ryan Getzlaf takes aim: Getzlaf was an assistant captain4 for Jonathan Toews’s team, and he didn’t seem to be taking the job too seriously. He said he hadn’t put much thought into his rankings and was worried that the notoriously focused Toews might force him to attend a strategy meeting. “Johnny’s pretty serious at some points,” he said. “I’m going to bring my empty portfolio and open it up like I’m going to talk about something.”


4.

That’s what the NHL called them, so stand down, alternate captain truthers.

When Getzlaf was asked who he’d like to see go last, he said he was disappointed fellow Duck Corey Perry wasn’t there to do the honors. But he had a backup plan: Drew Doughty, the Kings defenseman and Getzlaf’s occasional teammate on Team Canada. “Dewey could use it. We’d knock him down a little bit, let him sweat it out at the end.” He seemed genuinely disappointed to learn Doughty was an assistant for Team Foligno and wasn’t eligible to be picked.

No. 3 — Doughty responds:  Did I immediately find Doughty and narc on Getzlaf? Yes I did. He had a laugh about it, before suggesting he might conspire to help teammate Anze Kopitar win the car that goes with being the last pick. Then Doughty paused and asked whether Getzlaf was in the draft pool. (He wasn’t.)

The moral: Next year, Doughty and Getzlaf can’t both be assistant captains. This grudge match needs to go down. Make it happen, NHL.

No. 4 — Phil Kessel holds court: By now, you know the drill with Kessel and the media. He doesn’t have the personality to deal with it, he’s occasionally rude, and he always looks like he’d prefer to be anywhere else.

That’s why it was so strange to see Kessel show up on Friday and happily spend 25 minutes holding court. And this wasn’t contractual-obligation Phil — he was engaging and entertaining on subjects ranging from the struggling Leafs (he thinks they can still turn it around) to trade rumors (he wants to stay) to college football (he’s a big fan) to Canadian TV shows (they’re awful).

Maybe the best moment came when he was discussing the Leafs’ recent road trips and made an offhand mention of how he’d watched every movie the hotels had to offer. Then he caught himself, quickly adding, “But not the bad ones. Stay away from those!”

It was like watching Neo figure out how to dodge bullets. I’m not sure the world is ready for a media-savvy Phil Kessel.

Moment I can’t mention because I’m trying to only say nice things: Younger players typically get asked for their favorite All-Star memory from their youth. Flames rookie Johnny Gaudreau’s answer: Kane’s superman routine during the skills competition breakaway event … way back in 2012.

We are all so, so old.

Friday Night: The Draft

This relatively new addition to the weekend, being held for just the third time, sees the players draft their own teams during a made-for-TV event.

No. 5 — The, uh, atmosphere: The first All-Star draft was in 2011 in Raleigh, and it was reasonably fun despite nobody knowing quite what to expect. The 2012 event in Ottawa was similar, with the added element of an audience of hockey fans that seemed to have been, let’s just say, over-served. That crowd took over portions of the event, cheering Senators and booing Maple Leafs.

This year’s Columbus crowd was relatively well-behaved. Instead, it was the players who appeared to have had a refreshment or two (or more), as they spent the entire 90-minute draft taking swigs from plastic cups. This would turn out to be important as the night went on.

No. 6 — The first-round pick: Not Ryan Johansen, a decent enough player who went first overall to Team Foligno because he’s a Blue Jacket and lord forbid that this entire weekend didn’t pander to the hometown crowd at every opportunity.

No, the highlight of the first round was Team Toews selecting Kessel with its pick. It felt like a little bit of redemption for Kessel being the last pick in the 2011 All-Star draft, and Toews put an exclamation point on it by declaring that he’d just taken “one of the most coachable players out there”. That was a not-so-subtle reference to the never-ending debate in the Toronto media about Kessel’s attitude, and it got the first big laugh of the night.5


5.

If you placed a prop bet on “Jonathan Toews + Phil Kessel = comedy gold” before the event, you’re living on your own private island now.

It was also a setup, but we’ll get to that in a second.

No. 7 — The wanderers: Hosting the fantasy draft has to be one of the toughest jobs in sports media. The whole thing never gives off a vibe of being especially well-rehearsed, and getting a hockey player to say something interesting on the spot is never easy work. This year’s hosts, Kathryn Tappen and Daren Millard, mostly succeeded in keeping things moving (despite an odd fascination with the players’ shoes).

But even they couldn’t get one simple message through to the players: Don’t leave until you’re interviewed. Player after player would just wander off like a toddler at a new playground, forcing a host to loudly beg them to come back. I think this happened literally every single time, and it was never not funny. I’m amazed Millard and Tappen didn’t just start tackling people by the third round.

No. 8 — The Alexander Ovechkin show: The Capitals’ star has never been shy about the spotlight, so it was no big surprise to see him front and center during the draft, as he made a running joke of his desire to be picked last and earn the free car that goes with the honor.6 First he said so. Then he made a sign. Then he lobbied on social media. At one point he blatantly hijacked a Mark Giordano interview. It should probably go without saying that he did all of this while looking as if he’d been enjoying more than his fair share of those mystery cups. He pretty much stole the show.


6.

We’d later find out he had a good reason.

He probably also took the whole act too far, at least in the eyes of his fellow players. Team Foligno took him with the third-to-last pick — “just to piss him off,” a live mic caught Kane explaining — and Doughty later explained that had been the plan all along. Still, it was a memorable performance, one that players were still talking about at Saturday’s morning skate.

Ovechkin wasn’t the only one having some fun with the proceedings. From Roberto Luongo’s hair gel to Brent Burns’s caveman look to the continued chirping between Getzlaf and Doughty, most of the players seemed happy to loosen up and have some fun. Thank you, mystery cups.

No. 9 — The trade: The draft format allows the All-Star teams to consummate one trade, but the previous two drafts had gone by without any deals. That apparently wasn’t an option this year, according to the near-constant reminders that trading was allowed. (The captains later suggested that the league had all but insisted they make a deal.)

Midway through the evening, the NHL finally got its wish, as the two teams huddled up before announcing a swap: Kessel for Tyler Seguin. That, of course, is essentially the same deal the Leafs and Bruins infamously struck in 2009, which has followed the players ever since.

It was another fun moment, although you have to feel badly for Kessel and Seguin, who’ll go down in history as the weekend’s only two players who had to be seen in both versions of this year’s hideous uniform design.

No. 10 — The denials: So what really was in those cups? Red Bull, said Jakub Voracek. Cola, swore Kessel. Just plain old water, insisted Doughty. “You struggle to stay hydrated,” he helpfully explained.

Here’s hoping that an emphasis on hydration becomes an All-Star draft tradition over the years to come.

Moment I can’t mention because I’m trying to say nice things: One of the highlights of the draft concept is seeing who’ll be picked last. In the first two drafts, that slot probably generated more speculation than the first overall pick. The league tried to soften the embarrassment factor by awarding a free car to the last guy chosen, but fans still enjoyed seeing one player get singled out and left all alone.

So of course the league figured out a way to ruin it. When the draft was down to two players — Nashville’s Filip Forsberg and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — we were promised some sort of big twist. 7 That turned out to a confusing fan vote that ended with the two players being assigned to teams and both winning cars. There was no last pick, at least not one announced like all the others.


7.

No, not that kind.)

Don’t do this again, NHL. We demand our moment of humiliation.

Saturday Afternoon: Gary Bettman Speaks

Following a Board of Governors meeting, the league announced that the commissioner would be appearing to make several announcements and take questions from the media.

No. 11 — Special delivery: Bettman’s availability ended up being low on news value, as his announcements largely ended up being confirmations of stories that had already been widely reported. That included the locations for next year’s outdoor games, an update on the salary cap, and the horrible terrible inexcusable innovative format for the return of the World Cup.

If there was a memorable moment, it was the brief interruption caused by a loud rumbling from a large delivery being made on the nearby arena concourse, which at one point resulted in a clearly frustrated Bettman insisting that everyone wait for the noise to recede. It was a classic cranky Bettman moment in an otherwise friendly affair, like an angry dad who’s not going to unpause the movie until everyone can quiet down.

Sorry about all the noise, Gary. Ovechkin’s empties aren’t going to deliver themselves.

Saturday Night: The Skills Competition

The newly selected rosters took to the ice for a variety of individual and team-based events.

No. 12 — The Columbus crowd: They were ready to cheer, they were willing to boo, and they were feeling downright arbitrary. Booing ex-Jacket Rick Nash made sense. Booing various Blackhawks kind of did. But some fans were booing just about everyone, and it felt pretty random. Who boos Patrice Bergeron?8 It added an element of unpredictability and signaled that the fans weren’t there to sit on their hands.


8.

Right, OK, but who other than Habs fans?

Oh, and I also saw a lady wearing a tattered Joel Quenneville Hartford Whalers jersey. I feel like you needed to know that.

No. 13 — Kessel and Seguin … again: The highlight of the fastest skater competition was the Kessel/Seguin matchup that kicked things off. Kessel won, but that’s hardly the point. At some point somebody clearly decided to force-feed us a manufactured rivalry between the two stars, and you should get behind that, if only because it’s our best chance at seeing a 24/7-style documentary series that follows their adventures after they’re forced to move in with each other during the offseason.

No. 14 — The breakaway challenge, or at least some of it: This is the league’s answer to the slam dunk contest, and players are encouraged to get creative. Props are allowed. Costumes are allowed. Setting your stick on fire is apparently not allowed, but I think we can all agree it should be.

As you’d expect, this all results in a mixed bag — we get it, NHL players, you can balance the puck on your stick blade — and Saturday had more misses than hits. That was especially true for Ovechkin, who couldn’t seem to get any of his moves to work and failed three times at a baseball-style swing at the puck (Luongo even loaned him a goalie stick for the third try).

But other attempts did work and produced some laughs. Blues teammates Brian Elliott and Vladimir Tarasenko took a mid-breakaway selfie. Johansen’s attempts included a “Flying V” from The Mighty Ducks and one where he borrowed a 7-year-old child to take the shot.

But the best move came from Voracek, who parodied Johansen by grabbing the diminutive Gaudreau for his own attempt. It was apparently Ryan Suter’s idea, and it’s safe to say the crowd enjoyed the moment a lot more than they would have if he’d gone with his original plan.

No. 15 — The weirdly accurate clock: All events are timed to the thousandth of a second. Kane took 13.529 seconds to hit all four targets in accuracy shooting. Team Foligno put up a 1:37.979 in the relay. That level of accuracy seems excessive, but I appreciate the effort.

No. 16 — The wonderful insanity of the skills challenge relay: By far the strangest event, the relay was introduced a few years ago in an attempt to breathe some new life into the skills competition. And it’s madness. There’s an obstacle course, miniature nets, another obstacle course, barriers in odd places, and the whole thing ends with goalies trying to score. At one point they even invoked a mercy rule that nobody knew existed.

The whole thing feels like the fever dream of somebody who passed out after binge-watching too much Center Ice, and it’s glorious. Just don’t ask me who won, because I have no idea.

No. 17 — Shea Weber’s big shot: The hardest-shot competition always seems like it’s going to be cool right up until it happens, when you remember that it’s just guys taking slap shots and then waiting for a computer screen to tell them who won.

This year’s event may have been even less exciting, since we all knew who was going to win. With defending champ Zdeno Chara not taking part, it was Weber’s contest to lose. And he almost did, missing the net on his first shot to set up an all-or-nothing second try. He came through, blasting a shot measured at 108.5 mph.9 That won him the event by a mile but fell just short of breaking Chara’s record. More importantly, it caused players to make these faces.


9.

Somehow this event can get by without three decimal places.

Moment I can’t mention because I’m trying to only say nice things: Team Foligno ended up winning by a final score of 25-19, and we’re all going to have to take the league’s word for it because literally nobody knows how the skills competition scoring works. The fastest skater event, which took roughly three minutes, was worth five points. The breakaway challenge, which took forever, was worth one. Some events have bonus points, others don’t, and one even had magic pucks that were worth extra.

Points just seem to be assigned at random; after each event, the PA guy tells us an updated score and we all just shrug and accept it. That’s a minor complaint given that we’re talking about an event with no competitive integrity to begin with, but it’s still weird.

All Weekend Long: Fan Fair

The NHL Fan Fair was a four-day event that took place at the Greater Columbus Convention Center and featured several interactive exhibits, along with activities and autograph sessions.

No. 18 — All the kids: The league promoted the Fan Fair as a kid-friendly event, and it got its wish. The event was packed with families, and many of the children were members of the preschool set. That’s your future generation of fans, and they seemed to be having a great time. There was even a rink set up where 3-year-olds could play an adorable version of hockey, running around in utter chaos chasing multiple balls and ignoring each other until the inevitable head-on collisions, then picking themselves up to run around some more.10


10.

It’s nice to see that somebody can master Randy Carlyle’s defensive system.

No. 19 — All the jerseys: The place was crawling with fans wearing NHL team jerseys. There were plenty of Blue Jackets, as you’d expect, but also a good showing from the Penguins, Flyers, Blackhawks, and, somewhat surprisingly, the lowly Sabres.

Far more importantly: I barely saw anyone wearing this year’s neon All-Star monstrosities. You’ve restored my faith in humanity, Columbus.

No. 20 — The snow slide: While not technically part of the Fan Fair, this attraction deserves a mention. Located right outside the arena, the snow slide had fans lining up for the chance to pay $2 to slide down a steep incline of packed snow and ice. Note to Columbus fans: We have one of these in Ottawa too. It’s called my driveway.

No. 21 — Columbus, Ohio: Legit hockey town? The Blue Jackets have existed since 2000, and in that time they’ve only made the playoffs twice. They haven’t won a round and hadn’t even won a postseason game until last year. They’re almost always bad, and they’re bad again this year.

So it’s probably fair to say we don’t really know how good a market Columbus can be. But for one weekend at least, the city was all about the NHL. Fans were everywhere, and there really was a sense that All-Star Weekend was a big event. At the Fan Fair, the exhibits were packed and the lines were long — when I went by, the lineup to have your photo taken with the Stanley Cup had been shut down because they’d run out of room to put people. And everyone seemed to be having a great time.

Does all of that mean Columbus has finally arrived as an honest-to-god hockey market? Probably not, or at least not yet. But it might be a lot closer than you think.

Moment I can’t mention because I’m trying to only say nice things: The hallway outside of the Fan Fair featured life-size cardboard cutouts of many of this year’s All-Stars. They also had one of Scott Hartnell, who is not one of this year’s All-Stars.

Mistakes happen, of course, but it leaves you wondering: At what point in the process of ordering, printing, delivering, and setting up the Hartnell All-Star cutout did somebody realize he wasn’t on the team and just say, “Screw it, put him up anyway”? And should we admire this person? I feel like we should.

(Also, a big shout-out to the excited toddler who ran over and flattened the Patrick Kane cardboard cutout with a forearm. This kind of stuff never happened back when the Hawks had a Brandon Bollig cardboard cutout around.)

Sunday Night: The All-Star Game

The weekend is capped off by the game itself. Spoiler alert: It was terrible. Team Toews earned a 17-12 victory in a game that set the All-Star record for goals without ever looking anything like actual hockey. John Tavares tied a record with four goals and Voracek tied another with six points, but Johansen won the MVP in a losing cause because it’s a fan vote and who even cares anymore.

We’ve managed to stay positive this long, but finding something nice to say about last night’s game may be too much to ask. Let’s see what we can do.

No. 22 — Carey Price has stopped caring: On the night’s eighth goal, a Tavares breakaway marker late in the first, Price decided to basically ignore the shot and execute a bizarre backward somersault across the crease instead. Normally you’d view something like that as making a mockery of the game. But since it’s already a mockery, with none of the skaters even trying to look like they were trying, Price was just getting into the spirit of the thing.

He was probably having fun, but it’s more satisfying to imagine that he was trying to shame his teammates, so I’m going to go ahead and believe that instead.

No. 23: Fall Out Boy: The band appeared in the first intermission to perform its hit “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark,” a.k.a. the “light a mup” song. Lead singer Patrick Stump made history during the performance by becoming the first person to ever hear those opening notes played in an NHL arena without immediately turning to the person next to him and saying, “Not this goddamn song again.”

No. 24 — The Columbus crowd, Part 2: Sunday night’s crowd started off as a gentler version of Saturday’s — they didn’t even boo anyone other than Nash during the pregame introductions.

That generous spirit lasted right up until a few minutes into the second period, when Team Toews poured a quick six goals past Marc-Andre Fleury to take a 10-6 lead. At that point, the crowd decided to ignore that Fleury was nominally the home team goalie and started serenading him with sarcastic cheers each time he made a save. They didn’t get many opportunities — Fleury tied an All-Star record by allowing seven goals in the period — but it was fun to see a crowd take some initiative and make its own entertainment.

It didn’t stop there. They were merciless on Nash all night. There was an attempt at a “boring” chant midway through the second. They booed a linesman for calling an offside. And during the third, somebody stood up and repeatedly yelled, “THIS IS THE WORST GAME I’VE SEEN; YOU SHOULD ALL BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES” until security hauled him out. (OK, that last one was me, but the point stands.)

No. 25 — Per NHL rules, the whole stupid thing eventually ended: See? Positive!

Moment I can’t mention because I’m trying to only say nice things: Team Foligno scored 12 times and the arena’s civil war cannon that fires after home team goals went off after almost every single one.11


11.

They skipped the 11th goal. Probably reloading.

Listen, Columbus: I know it’s a tradition and the fans love it, but you cannot put a cannon that loud underneath the press box and then fire it 11 times. There are sportswriters up here. We are old and timid and do not take good care of our bodies. If your cannon causes a bunch of us to keel over, don’t come crying when your local bars report a 90 percent drop in revenue.

And that was it. All-star Weekend has come and gone, and we all get back to the regular-season schedule tomorrow.

So did Columbus manage to pull off a miracle? The actual game was awful, but did the rest of the weekend make up for it? Did it actually squeeze just enough fun out of the NHL’s tired and broken All-Star Weekend to temporarily silence the league’s critics?

I kind of think it did. In fact, you might even say that I’m almost positive.

(Now let’s never speak of this again.)