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Monday, January 31, 2011

All-Star Game is more about smiles and cheers than shots and saves

Posted by on Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 7:54 AM

RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—A giant hand settled on my shoulder. "Sorry, I don't want to step on you."

Canes fans celebrated hockey the way only they do. And the rest of the hockey world joined in for All-Star weekend.
  • Photo by Lalitree Darnielle
  • Canes fans celebrated hockey the way only they do. And the rest of the hockey world joined in for All-Star weekend.
The hand belonged to Zdeno Chara, the one-faced Mount Rushmore of a defenseman, gently moving me out of the way to get to Alexander Ovechkin. Laughing, they put their hands to each other's chests and signed each other's jerseys like kids on the last day of summer camp. One could imagine their parents waiting nearby to retrieve them, awkwardly leaning on the station wagon fender and jingling keys impatiently in their pockets. And these kids not caring, still in their moment, savoring it.

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.

Despite his linemates efforts, Jeff Skinner could not get a goal in the All-Star Game. But his smile won plenty of hearts.
  • Photo by Lalitree Darnielle
  • Despite his linemates' efforts, Jeff Skinner could not get a goal in the All-Star Game. But his smile won plenty of hearts.
This weekend provided the Triangle its opportunity to show its love affair with hockey to an international audience. And the Triangle took hockey in its arms and sucked face for three solid days.

“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

A pre-game skit features Canes legends Rod BrindAmour and Ronnie Francis, as well as a collection of mighty mites.
  • Photo by Lalitree Darnielle
  • A pre-game skit features Canes legends Rod Brind'Amour and Ronnie Francis, as well as a collection of mighty mites.
Plenty of pundits, purists, and fans casually say to get rid of the All-Star Game because the players’ only effort in the contest is to avoid injury. Hockey is so often about valor, about summoning another wave of energy from seemingly inexhaustible depths, about going emotionally, physically, and psychically all-in for a shot at the Stanley Cup.

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.

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