TORONTO – Not only have Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom been put in charge of picking the NHL’s all-star teams, they’ll also play a major role in determining whether the league’s format change is a success.
The two soft-spoken captains will be front and centre when the teams are selected in a live television event a couple nights before the Jan. 30 game at RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.
A considerable amount of buzz has been generated by the NHL’s decision to stage a draft to divvy up the players. But the change comes with some risk since no one knows quite how it will come off.
“It’s going to be on TSN live and there’s going to be 18 rounds, (Staal and Lidstrom) had best be good for TV,” said Glenn Healy, a former executive with the NHL Players’ Association and current CBC commentator. “Otherwise, this is going to be a moment that will live in infamy. It could be a lot of bad TV.”
Perhaps that’s just one more reason to watch.
Lidstrom and Staal were each selected as team captains by their peers—a process that was conducted by consensus-building rather than with an actual vote.
NHLPA divisional player representative Steve Webb phoned each of the all-stars to talk about potential captains. Three names consistently came up: Lidstrom, Staal and Sidney Crosby, who remains sidelined with a concussion.
“Lidstrom was a no-brainer,” said Webb. “The first couple guys I was calling right out of the gate were saying Staal. I think they recognized with Sidney—his name was always in there—but they always added Staal with Sid maybe not being able to appear.”
It will certainly bring a rooting interest to a game that might not otherwise have one. Staal is a captain for the hometown Carolina Hurricanes and has hinted that he’d like to use his first pick in the draft on teammate Cam Ward.
Lidstrom has built a sterling reputation while spending the past two decades in Detroit. Even though the Swede rarely draws much attention to himself, Red Wings GM Ken Holland is confident he’ll handle the all-star spotlight well because he managed to successfully take over that franchise’s captaincy from Steve Yzerman.
“Nick became the captain of the Detroit Red Wings with probably the same questions people are asking (now),” Holland said in an interview. “Nick is very, very comfortable being in the background but he’s also very, very comfortable in being the captain and the person who has to speak on behalf of everybody else.
“He’s been in both roles in Detroit and done both well.”
He and Staal will also have some assistance during the draft in the form of two alternate captains. Those players are expected to be announced within the next week and could possibly include Crosby.
The Pittsburgh Penguins star is still experiencing concussion symptoms stemming from a collision with Washington’s David Steckel during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and a hit from Tampa’s Victor Hedman on Jan. 5. After sitting out the last two all-star games with injuries, Crosby is hoping to make the trip to Raleigh.
“I’ll be there if I can be there and I still haven’t ruled out being there,” he told reporters in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. “Hopefully in the next few days, things get better. There’s a slight chance I can still be back for that.”
NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan developed the draft to replace the tired East-vs.-West format. This year it will be billed as Team Staal against Team Lidstrom.
A coin flip determines which player gets the first overall draft pick and no one knows exactly what will happen once that’s been made. For example: Will Staal pick Rangers defenceman (and brother) Marc Staal?
The only rules governing the draft are that goaltenders must be off the board after each team’s 10th pick and defencemen have to be gone by the 15th selections. The participants are just as curious as fans to see how it turns out.
“They don’t know where they’re going,” said Webb. “Usually you already have your team in line, right? Now you have no idea—you’re going down there and you don’t know what colour of jersey you’re going to put on, you don’t know what dressing room you’re going to be in.
“You’re showing up to the unknown.”
Lidstrom has been selected to 12 all-star teams during his Hall of Fame career and made headlines in 2009 when he skipped the game in Montreal. He was subsequently suspended one game by the NHL.
Healy worked for the players’ union back then and was impressed with how well the Red Wings captain handled the situation.
“Lidstrom has never been about himself,” said Healy. “A couple years ago when they had the all-star game and he chose to go to his son’s hockey game and they suspended him, he didn’t care. He actually didn’t even want the PA to grieve it: ‘Nope, I’m fine, I made the decision, I’m going to the hockey game and I’ll lose a day’s pay. My bad.’
“He’s totally unselfish. … I can’t state this enough—no maintenance, zero, none. Trainer’s delight, coach’s dream.”
In other words, a perfect role model and ideal captain.
Even though Healy figures the all-stars gave no thought to the television component of the weekend when they picked Lidstrom and Staal, he likes the selections.
“No issue with either pick,” he said. “Now the torch gets passed to them to make it good for TV.”