Mark Streit can’t think of a better place to make his all-star game debut than the Bell Centre.
The 31-year-old defenceman knows that he might never have played a minute in the NHL if not for the Montreal Canadiens and sees symbolism in returning to the team’s building now that he’s being recognized as one of the game’s top players.
“It’s ironic that I’m going to go back where I played three years and made my first steps in the NHL,” Streit said Thursday from Calgary. “I have a lot of great memories, it was a great experience playing for the Habs.
“Going back there and playing at the Bell Centre, it couldn’t get any better than that.”
Now a member of the New York Islanders, Streit is one of 15 players that were added to the Eastern Conference all-star team for the Jan. 25 game.
It’s the kind of news he never dreamed he’d get. Streit grew up in Switzerland and spent nine years in his country’s domestic league before joining the Canadiens in 2005-06.
“I had to wait quite a while to get an opportunity to show myself and show people that I can play in the NHL,” said Streit. “I was 26 when I got drafted by Montreal, it was pretty late. And then it took me a while to get used to the hockey over here.
“Three years ago you just think about playing in the NHL and now this – it’s the absolute highlight of my career so far.”
It’s hard to blame him for the enthusiasm. The atmosphere should be electric as the Canadiens continue to celebrate their centennial season by hosting the all-star game for the first time in 16 years.
Streit won’t even be the only former Habs defenceman in the building – Sheldon Souray was chosen to represent the Western Conference.
The East won last year’s game 8-7 and will have plenty of firepower as they look to make it two in a row. Alex Ovechkin, Thomas Vanek and Jeff Carter – each tied for the league lead with 27 goals – were also added to the team.
“It’s going to be a sick atmosphere,” said Ovechkin.
Vanek and Carter will be among the players making their first appearance in the game, joining Streit, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and forward Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils.
Three players from the conference-leading Boston Bruins will represent the Eastern all-stars for a second straight year – goalie Tim Thomas, defenceman Zdeno Chara and forward Marc Savard.
Other players added to the team include forwards Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers, Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes, Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators and Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
On defence, Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs will make his fourth all-star game appearance while Jay Bouwmeester of the Florida Panthers will take part in his second.
“It’s great,” said Kaberle. “You get to play with the best players in the league, you get to chat in the dressing room with them. It’ll be a nice couple of days.”
Four of the six starting players voted in by fans are members of the hometown Canadiens – goaltender Carey Price, forward Alexei Kovalev, and defencemen Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek. The fans also voted in forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The other 15 players were selected by the NHL’s hockey operations department in consultation with team general managers.
Streit was the natural choice from the Islanders. He’s averaging three minutes of ice time more than anyone else in Long Island and is tied for the team’s scoring lead with 32 points (8-24).
The Islanders signed Streit to a US$20.5-million, five-year contract over the summer. He returned to Montreal for a game against his former team in November and received a rough reception from the fans.
“I got booed every time I touched the puck in that game,” said Streit.
He was quick to add that the people he encountered on the street were much warmer.
Streit isn’t sure how he’ll be received during the all-star game, but he’s glad to have a chance to find out. He has a soft spot for Montreal.
“Playing at the Bell Centre is very special,” said Streit. “It was good going back (in November), but this will be even better.”