MONTREAL – In future, before anyone bitches, moans and characterizes the All-Star Game as a Mel Brooks-caliber farce and near-total waste of perfectly good eyesight, they ought to attend one in a real hockey city like the home of the Habs.
If they did – if they heard and saw the utter adoration for hockey and all the game’s legends; if they felt the goosebumps when longtime Canadiens legends such as Henri Richard and Serge Savard were introduced during play stoppages; if they looked out at the Bell Centre crowd and saw young and old united in enjoyment of the skill and sacrifice necessary to be named as one of the business’ best – the cynics might feel just a little bit different.
Now, this corner isn’t going to argue the 2009 game itself – won 12-11 in a shootout by the Eastern Conference – was a blueprint for how hockey should be played, even by the standards of the notoriously weak All-Star genre.
The first period had a handful of genuine scoring opportunities, including a 4-on-1 break for the West stymied by hometown defenseman Andrei Markov, but not much more; the second frame featured enough scoring (10 goals!) to make Jacques Lemaire and Lou Lamoriello break out in hives; and the highlight of the third period was probably the cheeky chants directed at Tim Thomas that started out with a mocking tone, but after several excellent saves by the Boston goalie, ended up as a tribute to him.
Oh, and penalty aficionados likely were sorely distressed the All-Star Game officials didn’t send so much as a single player to the shame box through the first 60 minutes.
But that’s not to say the game didn’t turn into a nail-biter, either. Indeed, as both overtime and the shootout loomed, fans were cheering wildly for the action and the night to continue as long as possible. And when Alex Ovechkin rifled the final goal past Roberto Luongo, the arena exploded as if the Canadiens had won a playoff game.
However, the true magic of All-Star weekend is in the palpable sense of fraternity it inspires among any and all who’ve skated or dreamed of skating with the best players in the sport’s history.
In another town where hockey is mere afterthought or quick-to-fade curiosity, rarely if ever will there you see a similar sentiment. But in Montreal, where not even sub-arctic temperatures were enough to persuade the masses to watch the game from the warmth of their homes, there was never an iota of doubt the locals would welcome all in attendance as if they played all their lives for the home side.
(Okay, Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle and Luke Schenn got a bit of a rough ride from the crowd. But even the jeers directed toward the Leafs over the weekend were half-hearted at best.)
Here, they’re not above fawning over Ovechkin without any prodding. Here, they weren’t too proud to gasp out loud when Evgeni Malkin went between his legs for a beautiful goal in the second period.
Here, they understand that, though players may pass through town and eventually join a hated opponent, prodigious hockey talent of any kind provides lifetime memories that forever deserve respect.
There was a whole bunch of respect being shown in Montreal during this All-Star Game. Whether it was a warm “get well” JumboTron message and round of applause for ailing former Montreal coach Pat Burns, the presence of Montreal’s greatest living legend Jean Beliveau, or the genuine cheer that went out at the end of regulation time when the crowd was thrilled to squeeze in another period of action, the Canadiens organization exuded nothing but class all night – and indeed, all weekend long.
You’re allowed to hate the Habs for their unrivaled on-ice success. But you can’t say they don’t understand the passion and pride ingrained in the culture of sweet, sweet hockey love.