ATLANTA – It has been very easy and convenient to rip the NHL All-Star Game for, oh, the past 20 years or so, but for at least one night, the league and its players seemed to grasp the importance of showcasing its stars by actually staging a competitive game.
And if the league and the NHL Players’ Association are intent on working together to raise the profile of the league, they went a long way on that front in the All-Star Game, which was won 8-7 by the Eastern Conference on a goal by Marc Savard with 21 seconds left in the game.
Not only was the game a close one, it featured a furious comeback by the Western Conference team, some outstanding goaltending, a tour de force performance by emerging superstar Rick Nash and even a few bodychecks.
“This was the fastest one I’ve ever played in so far,” said Jarome Iginla, who was playing in his fourth All-Star Game. “Before the game we were talking about that. We wanted it to be a better game and a quicker game. We have so many fast young guys in our game and I think it’s important to showcase that.”
Of course, this being the NHL, there are always a select few who do their best to undo anything that smacks of progress. After a two-goal, one-assist performance, Eric Staal was named most valuable player in the game. Staal then fulfilled his obligations by doing a staged interview after the game, but when he was approached to be asked more questions in the dressing room following that, a media relations guy for the Carolina Hurricanes cut it off after a couple of questions, then denied several others who approached Staal for comments.
Yup, that’s really selling the game.
Then there was the matter of the panel of hockey writers picking the wrong guy to be the MVP. The night should have belonged to Nash, who is rounding into a complete player in Columbus under Ken Hitchcock. All three of Nash’s goals were beauties, all were scored on breakaways and all came as a result of turnovers players wouldn’t dare make during a regular season game.
Actually, Nash is probably beginning to get a complex when it comes to these things. Last year, he had two goals and two assists in a 12-9 win for the West, but was passed over in favor of Daniel Briere, who had 1-4-5 totals in a losing effort.
When asked whether he was thinking about the MVP award as the prized SUV was driven onto the ice, Nash said, “I had the same thought last year. But it’s not worth getting bitter. It doesn’t really matter, you know.”
But all in all, the weekend turned out to be a success, particularly in light of how disastrous things could have been. The festivities started out being all about who wasn’t there – namely Sidney Crosby, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Henrik Zetterberg and Sergei Zubov – but the players managed to show some panache in the skills competition and some competitive pride in the game.
And there were some memorable moments as well. At one point in the second period, Ilya Kovalchuk had a point-blank one-timer from the slot that died in the glove of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who stopped all eight shots he faced in the second period. Kovalchuk responded by crumpling to the ice, then getting up and giving Nabokov a hug.
“When you’re trying to sell the league and you have all the best players together, the best thing for the NHL is to have them going instead of gliding around,” said Western Conference coach Mike Babcock. “These are really competitive people you’re talking about here. When we went down (5-1 after the first period), we could have let it get away on us, but I thought the players dug in a showed some real pride.”
Clearly the league still has a long way to go on many fronts, but the all-star weekend it staged here was a very good start, particularly since it was in a soft hockey market. The skills competition, while needing some tweaking, showed some real imagination on the part of the league and it seems the players have finally come to the realization they have a personal stake in all of this as well.
“We were grown men who turned into kids again because we didn’t want to lose,” Savard said. “I thought the fans got a really good show tonight and I thought we did a pretty good job of making it a good game.”