The NHL’s entertaining, creative Skills Competition Saturday in Nashville put some overdue emphasis on good, old-fashioned fun.
The score didn’t matter one iota. What was it…29-12 for the Eastern Conference? It’s been mere hours since the 2016 NHL All-Star Skills Competition ended, and the actual team result already feels irrelevant. And yet, the players won something intangible and far more memorable Saturday night.
The event could’ve gone two ways in Nashville. We could’ve seen a bunch of tired players with vacant expressions labor their way through a dull affair, mailing in half-hearted attempts at creativity. We could’ve seen every member of the ‘All-Star Game is a joke’ brigade vindicated when sideshow John Scott fell flat on his face attempting a slapshot or breakaway goal.
Instead, good defeated bad. The one word not uttered enough in our sport these days – F.U.N. – triumphed. The players embraced the continuously joyous, friendly culture of Music City and delivered one hefty dose of pizzazz after another. And, best of all, Scott proved he could hang with his fellow elite professional athletes.
The NHL Breakaway Challenge portion of the night has always worked as a double-edged sword. It has the potential to show off the league’s players as real human personalities instead of cliché-spewing robots who loathe the idea of doing anything to stand out. But the results have been mixed over the years. Alex Ovechkin always seemed to be the rare guy trying to make the event memorable, wearing whatever silly garment he could find, and Patrick Kane did the Superman cape thing. Jakub Voracek pulled a fun stunt with Johnny Gaudreau last year, too, guiding ‘Johnny Hockey’ to the net like a little child.
But Nashville’s edition produced something we haven’t seen before: almost universal buy-in. It wasn’t a matter of waiting for each P.K. Subban shot to find any shred of personality. Instead, seemingly every attempt by every player topped the previous one.
James Neal impressed with a hidden puck trick. His second attempt? A hidden country music star trick. He literally unveiled Dierks Bentley, whom he promptly set up for a pretty goal.
Matt Duchene, the biggest country fan on the ice, donned a cowboy hat and attempted some positively dazzling puck tricks, with the biscuit resting on his blade, which he wielded high above his head. He said he started working on the technique when he was 14, goofing around on his backyard rink in Haliburton, Ont., after watching the Skills Competition on TV.
Brent Burns raised the bar even more. First, he and Joe Pavelski brought their sons, who play together on a team in San Jose just like their dads, to the ice. The four of them blitzed goalies Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, who tackled each other out of the way, opening up a yawning cage for Jagger a.k.a. ‘Lil Burns’ to score.
And Burns topped himself again his next time around, sporting a Chewbacca mask in honor of his beard-inspired nickname. He already owned the mask before this weekend, having bought it online for the San Jose Sharks’ ugly Christmas sweater party.
“At the end of the day, the good thing is seeing players being happy and excited to want to do something new and fresh,” Subban said. “It’s not about winning your event. It’s about providing the best entertainment for the fans. It’s great to see guys like ‘Burnsy.’ What he did, that’s funny. I loved it. I’m sure the fans loved it. It was entertaining. I was entertained, just being there. I was so happy to participate in it.
Subban clinched the fan vote as the winner by taking the ice for his final attempt dressed as Jaromir Jagr, complete with a long black wig.
It was all a refreshing reminder of what the all-star weekend is really about. It doesn’t have to be about voting in every single most deserving player, ranked according to their skill. That’s what the end-of-season First- and Second-team All-Star teams are for, and fans don’t vote on those. This weekend is about whatever the fans want it to be, because this game belongs to the fans.
The fans wanted fun, and they got it in spades, because the players really cared. Burns said he was so nervous for his demonstrations that he didn’t sleep for the last day and a half.
The fans wanted John Scott, and they got a better version of him than his NHL resume ever would’ve suggested. We now know Scott shoots harder than Aaron Ekblad or Tyler Seguin. Scott topped out at 95.9 miles per hour. We also know he can complete a breakaway attempt without losing control of the puck. He even busted out a half-decent spin-o-rama try. Bridgestone Arena was electric in its appreciation every time Scott took the ice. The excitement was palpable.
“To see him get some undue attention is awesome,” Burns said. “He’s a great hockey player. It goes unsaid how hard it is to get to the league and how skilled he is. All those guys in that role, if they’re given the green light to do stuff like that, they can do it.”
Maybe next year, Scott won’t be what the fans want, but he was this year. The positive energy in the building suggested the fans know more about creating fun than they may get credit for.
Score one for the players, for the fans, for the human side of hockey and for the concept of F.U.N.
“It’s great,” Scott said. “No one sees it in the locker room and on the planes and stuff, but everyone’s got a great personality, so it’s nice to shed light on it.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin