RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—A giant hand settled on my shoulder. "Sorry, I don't want to step on you."
Chara, Ovechkin, and over 40 of hockey's other brightest luminaries had just played the All-Star Game in Raleigh's RBC Center, in which Team Lidstrom held off Team Staal 11-10, but the game didn't really matter. The game wasn't why the players were there. They were all there to celebrate hockey's—and each other's—greatness. They were there to give the three-day party that last surge of revelry before everyone heads home, back to playoff races, trading deadlines, and contract negotiations.
Soon enough, Ovechkin will try to fling a wrist shot in the net using Chara to screen his goalie. Soon enough, Chara will barrel shoulder-first into the boards, trying to embed Ovechkin in the plexiglass. The same Canes fans who almost brought the house down Saturday night when Chara won the hardest-shot competition will jeer him to a similar degree when his Bruins visit on Tuesday night.
The game didn't matter to the legions of fans who packed the rink, cheering and oohing and aahing all night, tilting their heads back and laughing up at the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup banner and the retired numbers 17, 10, (Rod Brind'Amour and Ronnie Francis, who were a part of a pre-game, on-ice skit with a bunch of mighty mite hockey players, choosing up teams from a pile of sticks) and 2 (Glen Wesley, who sounded the hurricane warning siren before the opening faceoff).
These fans, decked out in Carolina red and white with the occasional pixel of Ranger or Maple Leaf blue or Penguin black and gold, had been cheering and chanting from their tailgates since the late morning. A haze of barbecue smoke hung over the RBC Center parking lot. The car horn call-and-response of "Let's go Hurricanes" rarely ceased.
“It was incredible," marveled Eric Staal, who delighted fans with two goals. "It was good for fans from out of town to see what hockey is like in the south, and I think they’ll go back home with a different perspective of Raleigh. We're blessed that we get to play here every day."
This is a unique hockey place now. Carolina's 2002 run to the Stanley Cup finals put Raleigh's name on the hockey map. Their 2006 championship, with its iconic image of Brind'Amour lifting the cup, circled Raleigh in red. And now this All-Star weekend has placed a series of exclamation points after it.
As for the game itself, well, it was a hockey game—there were three forwards, two defenders, and a goalie, trying to score on the other guys and to defend their own net. But it wasn’t really a hockey game.
No one threw a check, no shins blocked shots, no one dumped the puck and went off for a change, no whistles blew icing. Offsides was let go within reason. Goalies gloved pucks and tossed them back out into traffic. Caniacs saw their first and likely only 4-on-1 break.
It’s a hockey game drained of the game, so it’s hard to say what it is. And it’s a little hard to watch.
Great plays are great plays because of their context. Goals and saves decide games, dole out points in the standings, and determine which teams make the playoffs and which ones watch them grimly on their smartphones on the golf course. The gaudiest goal in the All-Star Game may draw the biggest ooh, but it’s lesser than the ugliest playoff goal
This is the ethos of hockey. The All-Star Game is its antithesis. So why hold it under the microscope of that ethos? You don't watch it so much as you cheer it. You gather these players on one sheet of ice not to see them play so much as to see them smile, have fun, and hear your cheers.
"The fans once again were tremendous," said Cam Ward, who only surrendered four goals in the first period before giving way to Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist. "I think it's great for the players and fans from out of town that came in to be able to see how hockey is down here in the south. I think they're going to go home with a different perspective on Raleigh and the game itself in the south. It was just a party, at that. And entertainment, really. It was great to see."
A game that cherishes and polices its tradition like no other opened its gates this weekend to let Raleigh in. And we busted through, to be sure.