Remembering the 1998 NHL All-Star Game in Vancouver

With last night’s loss to the Coyotes in the books, the Vancouver Canucks, with the exception of All-Star representative Bo Horvat, are officially on vacation. This season’s All-Star break comes at a good time for a team that has over-achieved thus far. The break provides a chance for reflection and introspection, but, truthfully, where they go from here is anyone’s guess. General manager Jim Benning seems intent on acquiring assets for a playoff push, without sacrificing any of the team’s draft picks or developing players.

With the Canucks on pause, sports talk radio, #Canucks Twitter and the blogosphere are using the break to analyze the minutiae of this team’s current version. Me, I’m on YouTube trying to find clips of the 1998 NHL All-Star Game from GM Place.

The 1998 NHL All-Star Game was arguably the lone positive in a season of negatives for Vancouver hockey fans. The Canucks, led by their new captain Mark Messier, finished dead last in the Western Conference and parted ways with many long-time Canucks. Trevor Linden, Kirk McLean, Gino Odjick and Pat Quinn would all depart the franchise in 1998, but at least the team had snazzy new uniforms …

International Non-Incident

The 1998 NHL All-Star game also happened to precede the NHL’s return to the Winter Olympic games in Nagano the following month. Sensing an effort to market the game globally, the league instituted an All-Star Game format that sought to create a sense of rivalry in the hopes that the players would actually give a damn about the All-Star Game for once. Introducing: Team North American (V. 1.0) and Team World.

The league may have been well-intentioned with the international spin, but the manufactured national pride never really kicked in for the players. They were content to play a half-speed, no-hitting game with plenty of scoring and very little in the way of actual competition. In other words, a standard NHL All-Star Game, but at least the teams had snazzy new uniforms …

Sadly, the only thing resembling an international incident at the first edition of Team North America versus Team World was Bryan Adams’ botched rendition of ‘O Canada.’

Some Interesting Inclusions

All-Star Game rosters are a bit of a sham. Often players beg out of being included. Sometimes worthy players are snubbed, while others are invited simply as a courtesy to the team’s fanbase. Without dissecting Team North America and Team World too critically, there are some interesting inclusions.

Forget about Gretzky, Lindros, Bourque, Roy, Sakic, Brodeur, Modano and Leetch on Team North America. Throw out Jagr, Forsberg, Hasek, Selanne, Lidstrom, Sundin, Bure and Zubov on Team World. All of these players were All-Star Game staples going back over a decade in some cases. More interesting are the inclusions of Darryl Sydor, Shayne Corson, Sandis Ozolinsh and Dimitri Mironov. One wouldn’t think of those players as All-Stars, yet there they are on the official 1998 NHL All-Star Game rosters.

Vancouver’s Offerings

Representing the Canucks on home ice, but on opposing teams, were Mark Messier and Pavel Bure. Messier had been signed by the Canucks the previous offseason and brought with him a whirlwind of hope and expectation. Since losing the Stanley Cup Final to the Messier-led New York Rangers in 1994, the Canucks had struggled to find consistency.

The team’s management pinned their hopes on Messier righting the ship and leading the team back into the playoffs. He was signed to a three-year, $20 million contract that made him the richest person in all of Point Roberts, Washington … but I digress. The Canucks were in shambles during and after Messier’s tenure, but at the time of the 1998 NHL All-Star Game, fans hadn’t soured on The Moose completely. The worst was still to come.

In 1997-98, Pavel Bure was a superstar. In his final season as a Canuck, he finished with 90 points, which was good for third in league scoring behind Jaromir Jagr and Peter Forsberg. For all the frustration he’d cause the team in the following season by leaving the club for personal reasons, his popularity was at an all-time high in Vancouver when he was named to Team World.

A Listless Legacy

Lost amongst all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the All-Star Game, is the game itself. In this 48th edition of the annual classic, Team North America bested Team World 8-7 on a game-winning goal from none other than Canucks hero (gag me) Mark Messier. Teemu Selanne recorded a hat trick and was named the game’s MVP in a losing effort. Nothing else of note really occurred.

As for the legacy left by the 1998 NHL All-Star Game? Well, the league maintained the international format before reverting to the East versus West format for the 2003 NHL All-Star Game from Sunrise, Florida. So, that has to count for something.

The impact left on Vancouver hockey fans as a whole is a lot more difficult to gauge. As for this hockey fan, I was a 14-year old rabid Toronto Maple Leafs (don’t ask, I grew up there) fan living in the suburbs of Vancouver in 1998. I attended every single event leading up to the All-Star Game and loved every minute of it. While I didn’t make it into the game itself, I was 14 after all and working on a budget that barely allowed for my daily Doritos and Pepsi. I distinctly remember attending the NHL Fantasy Fan Expo at GM Place and playing in a 3-on-3 ball hockey tournament conducted by the NHL.

I kissed the Cup, got Gretzky’s autograph and told anyone I could about how Felix Potvin was robbed for not being named to Team North America’s roster. For this hockey fan, the 1998 NHL All-Star Game brought me closer to the game that I loved and helped turn me into a life-long fan of the NHL.

Will I tune into this year’s All-Star Game(s)? Maybe, if I’m around with not much else to do. But even if I don’t find the All-Star Game particularly appealing or exciting anymore, I see the value in the league having an annual showcase event. It’s not necessarily for me, it’s for the 14 year-old me in the Leafs jersey.