SAN JOSE – Leon Draisaitl watched Erik Karlsson, one of the world’s best passers, failing do to what he does best. Premier Passer, the most sadistic event at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, had claimed victim No. 1 immediately. Hometown San Jose Sharks defenseman Karlsson stumbled to a 1:58 finish, seventh-best among the eight official participants.
“It made me a little nervous that a guy like Erik Karlsson, not the worst passer in the league, was struggling a little bit,” said Edmonton Oilers center Draisaitl.
The Fastest Skater and Hardest Shot get the glory every year. But is there an event more challenging and downright humbling than the Premier Passer? First, participants zip breakout passes to life-sized player cutouts and must land the puck on the tape. Then comes the gauntlet: the saucer pass section, in which they jump passes over barriers and must land them after the bounce into cartoonishly miniature nets, some of which are comically far away, to the point where the pass might feel almost blind unless you have 20/20 vision. Last, players pass to some targets – but only when they light up. The intended target changes after every pass, screwing with passers’ heads. From a distance, the entire event almost looks too difficult at times. A minute feels like an hour if a player goes cold and starts to miss several passes in a row. But that’s also the fun of it. To their credit, the players had no complaints afterward. Ottawa Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot in particular said he loved the challenge of it, even if it was frustrating.
Even if Draisaitl felt jitters when his turn came up, he shook the nerves off to complete the course in 1:09 and win the event – plus a $25,000 prize. It was jarring to see everyone struggle, but passing is still the skill in which he has the most confidence.
“I don’t know if I’m surprised,” Draisaitl said. “What I’m most comfortable doing is passing the puck. Without pumping my own tires too much here, I would consider that my strength.”
He said he felt the breakout passes were the most difficult – perhaps because that’s a job typically performed in games by defensemen. Interestingly, blueliner Chabot felt the breakouts were the easiest and that the middle section was devastatingly tough.
“They’re passes you do a thousand times during the year, but the middle part is kinda scary,” Chabot said. “The small nets are hard to get. The board is pretty close, so you have to make sure it lands right away.”
Six of eight competitors – Karlsson, Chabot, Mikko Rantanen, Keith Yandle, Ryan O’Reilly and Roman Josi – took 1:25 or longer to finish. Only Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho came within 10 seconds of Draisaitl.
But the person who made shortest work of the course Friday at San Jose’s SAP Center wasn’t Draisaitl, wasn’t an all-star, wasn’t an NHLer and wasn’t male. Team USA Olympic gold medallist and Calgary Inferno forward Brianna Decker glided through the course in the explanatory demo right before the event commenced. No official time was recorded, but some fan research on social media later charted her out at 1:06, three seconds quicker than Draisaitl.
“Karlsson went after me, so I was like, ‘OK, I think I might have beaten him,’ but I didn’t know how long it took me,” Decker said. “I was just casually going through the demo. That passing was pretty tough. But I had no idea, actually.”
“She beat me?” Draisaitl said, previously unaware of the news. “Wow. That is impressive. That’s really impressive. Good for her.”
Whereas Decker’s Team USA teammate, Kendall Coyne Schofield, was an official entrant in the Fastest Skater, Decker didn’t have that designation and thus couldn’t have qualified to win the prize – and the $25,000. Given Draisaitl’s salary pays him $9 million this season, Decker could use $25,000 a whole lot more. Supporters launched the hashtag #PayDecker in the hours after the event.
Given she was, in an unofficial but more literal sense, the best Premier Passer performer, it felt natural to ask Decker for the secret to success. The key, she said, was to get momentum by nailing a couple quick saucer passes in the middle stage, “but it was tough. It’s really underrated, and I think the guys would say the same thing.”
Even if the records will never declare Decker the 2019 passing champ, the show she and Coyne Schofield gave the fans Friday night was important. The initiated wouldn’t have been surprised, as anyone who’s watched Coyne Schofield before knows she has cheetah-like wheels, and Decker has been one of the elite offensive weapons in her sport for many years, but to open the eyes of some less educated fans was a huge win – bigger than Draisaitl’s even if he pocketed the cash.
“I think our women’s game has come a long way,” Decker said. “Today was a great opportunity for us to have people be more aware of our talent. But we couldn’t be more thankful for the NHL to allow us to come out here and hang out with the guys and be able to be part of the event.”