There’s something surreal about the NHL’s all-star festivities this time around. And that’s saying a lot. This event, after all, birthed the glowing puck, North America versus the World and Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway with two sticks and a pair of sunglasses. But Nashville might be hosting the strangest, most memorable edition yet.
Live, gritty country music plays from every window, door and crevice on Music City’s famous Broadway Street. Friendly citizens ask about “the hawkey game” in charming southern accents. Velveeta cheese cascades from a fountain at the Fan Fest. Every All-Star Game has a culture of fun enveloping it, but Nashville feels unique. It doesn’t blend with the sport as seamlessly as wintery cities like Chicago or New York or Ottawa might – and that’s a good thing. The contrast is fun. Aaron Ekblad talks about singing karaoke later (Call Me Maybe). P.K. Subban says he already has (Folsom Prison Blues). Matt Duchene and Johnny Gaudreau, massive country music fans, soak in the atmosphere. Duchene hopes he gets a chance to jam on his guitar.
And beneath the giddiness emanating from every player’s smile – or the gap where Brent Burns’ used to be – there’s a current of controversy. Every reporter attending media day at Bridgestone Arena Friday parts like the Red Sea when big John Scott enters, all 6-foot-8 of him, kicking off the sideshow. His Players’ Tribune article is the talk of the weekend, inspiring the same kind of slow-cap reverence as Jerry Maguire's memo. Scott's piece reveals that the NHL asked him if his children would be proud of him participating in the All-Star Game after fans voted him in. That was his last-straw moment. It's must-read material. Not all the players have seen it yet, but many want to.
“It’s the first thing I’m going to do when I leave here,” Ekblad said.
We’ve heard and read pretty much everything Scott has to say on the subject now. It’s fascinating, though, to hear other all-star participants speak out. They’re decidedly…not neutral. They’re making a concerted effort to rally around Scott, and not just guys like Burns who have been his teammates before. “It’s great that he’s here,” said Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson. “I met him yesterday. He’s a super nice guy. He knows a lot of guys here already, and that shows he’s been around for a while. It’s not always what you do on the ice skill-wise that shows how well-liked you are. And he’s one of the prime examples of that. He expected to be here, and he is, which is great.”
Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo is borderline mad about the whole thing. He wishes Scott could participate in every single Skill Competition event, too. “They voted him in! Let him play! I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal,” Luongo said. “The guy has worked tremendously hard to get where he is.”
And Dallas Stars left winger Jamie Benn believes Scott’s Pacific Division teammates will rally around him Sunday when it’s time for, gulp, 3-on-3. “I think guys on his team are going to be passing him the puck quite a bit and giving the fans what they want,” Benn said.
Whatever happens, it’s telling that we’re still talking about this, all of us, the media, the players, the fans. When was the last time an all-star weekend had us holding our collective breath in anticipation this way?
And Scott’s story isn’t the only fascinating one happening in Nashville. New Jersey Devils’ goaltender Cory Schneider spoke about taking a leadership role in the movement to alter goalie equipment through the NHL-NHL Players’ Association’s competition committee, working closely with league goaltending supervisor Kay Whitmore. At this stage, Schneider has to be deliberately vague about the adjustments, as they involve very specific angles and measurements, but he’s confident we’ll see some real changes. He singles out the chest protector. He believes equipment is indeed the area of the game to tweak if we want more scoring, and he says he’ll do everything in his power to ensure no one changes the size of the nets. He doesn’t mind if his stats dip for the worse as a result of an equipment change. He points out that the 1980s statistical standard can’t be compared to today’s, either, so he’s comfortable with a new era.
Schneider was approached to take part in the equipment design process and relished the opportunity.
“I like to be a part of what’s going on,” he said. “I don’t simply want to be told what’s happening and not really understand what’s being done. It directly impacts my career, my future, so when I got the opportunity to have a say, to be a part of it, I said sure. Why wouldn’t I want to know or be involved in this process?”
He believes the potential changes will standardize equipment more so that, as much as possible, goalies’ proportions are the same across the league.
“Goaltending is an inherently insecure position,” he said. “You’re always checking your stuff. You look down at the other end of the ice, and you see a guy and think, ‘Why does he look a lot bigger than I do when I know he’s 40 pounds lighter than me’?”
So we’ve got an enforcer one short sleep a way from revolutionizing the skills competition. We’ve got a cerebral goaltender working hard to change the sport. We’ve got 43 year-old Jaromir Jagr on the same Atlantic squad as 19-year-old Panthers teammate Ekblad, who tells us “Jagr scored his 200th goal… the day I was born.” Interesting stories pop up left and right here in Music City. It sure seems like this is going to be the best All-Star Game in a long time. So maybe it’s time to stop calling it a joke and start appreciating 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