SAN JOSE – It was a special year to join the First-Timers Club at the NHL All-Star Game. The lights were brighter and the attention was more intense – in a more literal sense than ever. With a stadium-like layout opening up Media Day to the fans, the players took their podiums with packs of San Jose citizens lording over them, supplying cheers and jeers between questions.
For the game’s elite names, from Connor McDavid to Auston Matthews to Erik Karlsson, this was nothing too out of the ordinary. They’re used to smothering attention from fans and media. But the experience really stood out for the first-time all-stars, the guys who never had any idea if they’d ever make it here. Take Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, 26, enjoying his first All-Star Game invite in his eighth NHL season after winning the Central Division’s ‘Last Man In’ vote. He was as wide-eyed and as humbled as any player in attendance Thursday evening.
“To be honest, I’ve never really seen myself as an all-star,” said Landeskog, who has 29 goals in 50 games and leads the NHL with eight game-winners. “An All-Star Game is always something you keep an eye on. You always know who’s an all-star around the league and whatnot. But to say that I was expecting this, I’d be lying if I said that. But I’m excited to be here and look forward to it.”
It’s not that the game’s biggest superstars take the experience for granted, but it surely feels more like routine when you’re, for instance, Chicago Blackhawks right winger Patrick Kane, cruising in for his eighth All-Star Game a couple months after his 30th birthday. There’s a a different kind of magic for the first-timers. New Jersey Devils right winger Kyle Palmieri, a nine-season veteran, got the news from GM Ray Shero after a practice, and Palmieri immediately called his fiancée and parents to tell them he’d been named an all-star replacement for teammate Taylor Hall.
Sniper David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins felt it was surreal to be doing what he’d watched so many times on TV, and he liked the idea of “just getting to be teammates for a couple days” with the Atlantic Division players he battles against so often. Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele couldn’t hide his childlike joy at being selected. His parents made the trip down with him, and he talked about how much he’d enjoy it if he got a shot to play with Kane and Roman Josi in the 3-on-3 tournament Saturday.
“There are definitely a little bit of nerves, but I’m really excited,” Scheifele said. “Finally getting here and seeing how the city’s decorated with all the all-star stuff, I feel giddy right now. Quite happy and very excited to be here.”
It might seem strange to hear the word “nerves,” but it’s a common theme in the First-Timers Club. The skills competition and 3-on-3 tournament are obviously all in good fun, but there’s a certain expectation that comes with being an all-star. No one wants to embarrass himself in front of the fans – or in front of players he may have idolized a few years back. Colorado Avalanche right winger Mikko Rantanen expressed relief at having so many other Finnish players to roll with this weekend, while Landeskog was just happy to have a linemate and fellow First-Timer there in Rantanen.
“I don’t really know what to expect, to be honest with you, whether it’s the skills competition or the game,” Landeskog said. “With the whole experience I’m trying to keep an open mind and just enjoy the whole thing. But I’ve got Mikko to lean on. He’s a first time participant. We’ll be going through it together.
“Everybody in the hockey community has a lot of great personalities, and players are a certain breed, and everybody’s kind of made out of the same material. It seems like everybody’s super nice and down to earth and good guys.”
Is the All-Star Game fluff? Of course it is. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry significance beyond the fans. For the players who’ve paid their dues across multiple seasons, it’s an announcement that they’ve made it.