commentary by Jas Faulkner, senior correspondent
author’s note: Sticktaps to Charlie Jones for catching the SNAFU regarding the illustrations. Believe it or not, I can tell Paul Kariya and Ryan Suter apart, just not when I’m looking at teeny thumbnails.
Purists argue that events such as the All Star Game, the Heritage Classic, the Winter Classic and the NHL Awards have little to do with the substance of real hockey. I disagree, but understand where that sentiment is coming from. The red carpet walks, the carnival atmosphere, the presence of celebrities who have little or no knowledge, much less real love of the game make what happens on the ice seem beside the point.
To my knowledge, there is no one who out and out hates these events and there are a few who love them with the same sort of devotion one finds in Trekkies and Browncoats who plan their calendars around San Diego ComicCon. For the rest of us, those of us whose professional lives are intertwined with the fortunes of young men who skate to the faceoff circle three nights a week, ten months out of the year, the relationship is love/meh.
We know there is much more at stake. The NHL has far more to gain from this than they stand to expend in terms of time and expense. Is it worth the trouble? Absolutely. The oddities aspect of the season provides breaks in the action in the sport with the longest professional season in North Americaand gives casual watchers a chance to jump in and enhance their knowledge of the players and the game itself. Those who might hit the flipper at the first sight of Pierre McGuire during a regular game might hold off clicking over to Pawn Stars if they get a chance to see the NHL’s best on the ice at the same time. They might be more inclined to stick around and see what the fuss is over that snarky young Russian or a chance to see the Clash of the Titans that has become the slap shot competition between Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara. They might just discover that hockey is a pretty great game for everyone, not just something that only Yankees/Canadians/East Coasters/Girls enjoy.
So why the love/meh relationship? Maybe it’s the heightened expectations. Think of it this way. At its best, the All-Star Games are like a crossover comic book. Remember how cool it was to think about what would happen if Batman, Superman and the Green Arrow worked together? At its worst, the All-Star Games are like a crossover comic book. Remember how clunky some of those editions featuring Superman, Batman and the Green Arrow could be? It all depended on the writers, pencil guys, inkers, etc. The same Dynamic explains the ASGs. Aside from the show runners, there are the various venues, the wants and needs of the media outlets and the continually growing and evolving wishlist* of the fans that shape the event. There is no singular vision at work here, it is all pieced together by committee and sometimes the beast that springs forward in late January/early February is as awe-inspiring as any medieval monster breathed to life by monastic paintboxes and sometimes it lumbers along, an elephant described by Nash’s coeterie of blind men.
Guess Who Is/n’t Coming To Ottawa
A dependable component of the ritual is the suspense (or lack of it) that accompanies the announcement of the lineup. The biases of league and broadcast outlets play an often unacknowledged role in deciding who appears. Events of the past season caused a big shift in emphasis on the expected set of key players in 2011 when The Alex ‘n’ Sidney Show was put on hiatus due to a spate of absences during the first half of the regular season that were brought about by injuries and suspensions. The net effect of leveling the play in the field of the boarded was that it gave other players and their teams a chance to gain prominence in the eyes of casual viewers. Ovechkin and Crosby may very well have received some indirect benefit as it gave newer fans a chance to see them in the bigger context of the whole league and better understand why they are rightfully seen as two of the NHL’s leading talents.
As was the case with the 2011 event, who isn’t coming is as notable as who is. Red Wings Big C, Nicklas Lidstrom is giving the festivities a pass, citing the desire to have the weekend off. Not long after Lidstrom’s announcement,Anaheim’s Teemu Seanne asked off, suggesting Cory Perry as a good alternate to skate in his place. While they have given compelling reasons for wanting to stay home, I can’t help but wonder if some of the manufactured drama created by last year’s show runners figured into their decisions.
The NHL Gets All Mean Girl On Our Heroes
Aside from the glitzy silliness, the skills competition that never fails to excite and entertain and the game itself, what made 2011 so memorable was the manner in which the teams were determined. Instead of dividing everyone along conference lines, the ASG Powers That Be determined that a game of choosing sides might be fun.** The end result was predictable and it possibly presented enough of a payoff in water cooler chatter the following Monday that they might repeat the process this year. What viewers saw was a handful of men having fun with it. There was the predictable shtick between brothers as the Staals and the Sedins teased and neenered from all sides of the dias. There was Phil Kessel who handled being last chosen with grace and good humour.***
And then there was Jonathan Toews. Here’s the thing, we all know Toews can be an intense young man. Anyone who has watched him on the ice, even at pregame skate, has seen his trademark gimlet-eyed glare and clenched jaw whenever anyone from the other team glides a little too close. He might have been hamming it up. That might have been the first time he wasn’t chosen first. What a lot of us saw was his (and a few other’s) discomfort as someone else was chosen and a jubilant young man walked to the stage to join his team.
Every misfit who has eaten lunch on the loading dock of cafeteria kitchen because their high school’s lunchroom was too much, every odd soul who spent their mites and midgets years taping sticks and filling water bottles while their teammates played four shifts for their every one, every person who was ever sent to the library during gym because the teacher did not want to see a rainy day session of dodge ball turn into a gothic amalgam of “Lord of the Flies” and “Bring It On” could identify with Toews. They could see what was happening and it was no fun to watch. Choosing up sides is not only unnecessary, it runs counter to the aim and function of the event for the NHL and the hockey community. It harkens back to the worst aspect of sports: the exclusion that shuts people away from involvement. It may very well retard the process of winning hearts and minds as it echoes the point in time when emotional and intellectual involvement in the game no longer affords any benefit for those who might follow and support hockey.
The only time Shea Weber did not smile during the ’11 ASG interviews was when he was asked about this part of the weekend. His response, a mixture of decency and compassion, provided a counterpoint to what was saved from being an ugly speed bump in the proceedings by the humour and good will of those who refused to invest too much in the process. Did Lidstrom, who is known for as much for his decency as his on-ice skills take this into consideration when deciding not to participate? We may never know, but it is something to consider.
It’s About Darned Time!
Last year a colleague asked a number of writers to contribute a paragraph or two about a player who was unlikely to be invited to the All-Star Games and deserved to go. I was covering Nashville and suggested three possibilities for the Predators’ entry: Patric Hornqvist, Anders Lindback, and Sergei Kostitsyn.
Nononononononono! He wanted me to write about Ryan Suter.
I tried to explain why Suter was not the right guy and realised I was employing the same tone my nephew used to take with me when he tried to explain why the Disney Channel was not a sign of the death of American belles letters. This happens a lot when it comes to trying to explain the Predators to people who don’t get them or the love for them. So I wrote the piece about Suter, but I disagreed then and still do.
There is nothing incongruous or unexpected about Ryan Suter’s presence at the All Star Games. His inclusion is not only unsurprising, it is extremely overdue. He should have been a staple at this event for at least the last two to three seasons it has taken place.
For those of you who may not have been paying attention, meet Ryan Suter. Suter is the other half of that blue line duo that makes Nashville’s reputation as a defense powerhouse. You all know Shea, the BC kid made good with the infectious smile and the deadly fast slap shot. Beyond the flash is his linemate: equally talented, ever present: grounded, focused and all business as he watches and makes the opposition work to get the puck past Pekka Rinne. Meet Ryan Suter, the Olympian for Team USA. Meet Ryan Suter, who unwaveringly supported Weber in his first year as captain and is no less a leader himself. Meet Ryan Suter, who was often the unsung hero who was often the unheralded force behind the on-ice success of the Predators’ prefabbed Ice-Monkee, Mike Fisher.
Pucknation, if you are lucky this will be your chance to see Weber and Suter in action on the ice. Pay attention. Years down the road they will be the stuff of hockey memories shared over deep fried pickles and Yazoo Pale . At some point Weber will most likely take his talent back to where it all started in BC. Suter will join his father and uncle as elder statesmen of the game. For now, they are the Big Cats’ Glimmer Twins, the yin and yang that turns at the heart of the Predators’ club. I hope the franchise’s management gets smart and does what it has to in order to hang on to the D-Line that made Milwaukee and Nashville famous.
*And the moral to that story is to be careful what you wish for.
** For anyone who has ever felt in the least jealous of professional athletes, evidently.
***I already liked Kessel before the ’11 ASGs. That he’s having a good season this year serves as reminder that nice guys win sometimes.