Full disclosure. Most of the times I’ve had the chance to watch the NHL All-Star Game, I pass. I also pass on every other All-Star Game. They are hardly must see TV, at least for me.
But when the NHL All-Star Game hit my hometown, well, it was different. My hope was that it’d be so much more than what one sees on television. And on that front, it succeeded in a big way.
The All-Star weekend is geared around fun. The game has some money on the line for the winning players, so there is some incentive to play well in the weekend’s signature event. But not enough to take the fun out of the game.
A few years ago, the NHL made a smart choice. The most entertaining aspect of NHL games is the 3-on-3 overtime. The league moved to make the entire All-Star Game a 3-on-3 event. As such, it is more fun to watch. Selecting All-Stars by division fed nicely into this format.
Still, when I consider the events in their entirety, the main courses – game itself and the NHL players skills competition which preceded it – weren’t what made this a success.
The All-Star weekend is really more of a festival than an event and it is the cumulative effect of numerous small moments which add up.
One of the joys was bumping into fans from other teams, including many outside the venue. Chatting with the Calgary Flames fans while eating lunch prior to the game. Walking back from the skills competition and talking to an Anaheim Ducks fan as she wondered when their coach was going to figure out the defensive pairings. Catching a moment with the Winnipeg Jets fan wearing an over-the-top Winnipeg Jets jacket.
A chat with a family from New Jersey, after the game, captured it best. They loved the local weather and hated the local traffic. Around downtown San Jose, the league placed five-foot high ‘pucks’ with individual player images. And fans flocked to them for photo opportunities. I asked the visitors from the Garden State if they’d found Kyle Palmieri’s puck. They noted there was a Taylor Hall puck, but no Palmieri puck since he was an injury replacement. At which point, their young son referring to Palmieri and smiling ear to ear, said, “he gave me his stick.” That’ll make a weekend.
Women Steal the NHL’s Show
The skills competition had the potential to be a snooze-fest. But one wrinkle changed it and it can be summed up in one word: women. Four Olympic skaters joined in. Canadians Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast, and Americans Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne Schofield.
The first skill event was the fastest skater and Coyne Schofield was the first skater. She dazzled the crowd with a brilliant lap. No doubt, there were many All-Star skaters relieved not to be in the competition against her. While most (but not all) of the seven NHL contestants bettered her time, she was very competitive. She belonged.
The best came later, when Decker demonstrated the passing skills competition. Though she wasn’t a contestant, she completed the course in a 1:09. Which, it turned out, was better than any of the NHL players. She literally beat the best. A movement started saying Decker deserved the $25,000 prize for winning. Truth is, she did. It didn’t take long before a major hockey equipment supplier did just that.
The following day, the four women were shown on the big screen during the All-Star Game and received a huge ovation. The announcement included four $25,000 donations, one made in the name of each woman, to the charity or program of their choosing. In the end, the women got more visibility than they could have hoped, one scored a sweet $25,000 and all were able to help charities. A lot of winners here.
A Chance to Cheer…and Boo
The Sharks franchise, which first played in 1991, has matured nicely. So has the fan base. Plenty of former Sharks players were around for FanFest and other activities. On the screen during breaks in the game, long ovations were given for historic Sharks figures including Owen Nolan, he of the famed called shot in the 1997 All-Star Game, and goalie Evgeni Nabakov, now a coach for the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda.
One of the odder moments for long-time Bay Area sports fans was seeing the infamous Stanford band playing during the player introductions. My first reaction to seeing the band instantly took me to announcer Joe Starkey’s voice and a slightly updated take on perhaps football’s most famous play. “The band is out on the ice” resonated in my head. On this occasion, no trombones were harmed.
Fans let their feeling be known towards various players. The hometown Sharks received long and loud ovations. Auston Matthews won over the crowd when he took off his jersey during the skills competition to reveal a Patrick Marleau jersey. Marleau may be a Toronto Maple Leaf now, but he spent 20 years as a member of the Sharks organization and the affection remains.
Matthews’ teammate, John Tavares, isn’t loved in Sharks Territory, though. As a free agent, he spurned San Jose over the summer. In doing so, he earned the ire of the local fan base, who booed him often and with great energy. Drew Doughty, of the longtime rival Los Angeles Kings, also earned loud and frequent jeers. During the skills competition, the big screen flashed Doughty and Tavares chatting, and well, the double whammy resulted in a predictable fan reaction.
Sidney Crosby, who won a most valuable player honor on Sharks ice for the second time (one for this All-Star Game, the other for the Stanley Cup win in 2016) got his share of boos. A pair of goalies, John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights, also earned boos. Unfortunately, neither Ryan Getzlaf nor Corey Perry were at the game — no doubt the fans would have enjoyed booing them as well.
Also missing from the proceedings was league commissioner Gary Bettman. Boos are as much of Bettman’s life as Hail to the Chief is part of the life of an American president. But deputy commissioner Bill Daly handled the postgame honors.
The NHL’s Festival
The celebration included a host of events, including the aforementioned FanFest, which began Wednesday. The Stanley Cup made an appearance. I won’t cover this in detail, local blogger A.J. Strong did a wonderful job of that.
Team mascots showed up in force and were a presence throughout the weekend, even playing a game amongst themselves. During the All-Star Game, several roamed the stands creating fun, comedy and in some cases, a bit of havoc (Gritty, as if I had to get specific).
After the skills competition, P.K. Subban taped his All-Star Special at a local comedy club. The NHL’s presence, in a variety of forms, was everywhere.
The events, covering the better part of a week, were a blast. But not for the big moments or the big stars. It was, instead, the cumulative effect; the dozens of smaller moments which made it great. Sure, there were some great goals in the game itself (Steven Stamkos and Jeff Skinner among the more brilliant) and most every goalie turned in remarkable saves. Fleury’s pumped-glove salute after a rare save by a Pacific Division goalie was the best in-game comic relief moment and likely earned him some new fans.
The central events added to the festivities, they didn’t dominate them. It was more of a festival than an event.
I can’t say if I’ll watch the All-Star Game next year when it moves to St. Louis. But to those who attend, I encourage you to soak it all in. The joy doesn’t come through on the screen. It really is about being there.
Everyone has criticisms and I’ll offer mine. The league missed out on a no-brainer for a fun event. Selecting Joe Thornton to the All-Star team was an easy call and somehow it got missed. If nothing else, league commissioner Gary Bettman should have put him in. When you get the chance to honor a legend in his home venue at this sort of event, you do it. It’s just that simple.