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Final Thoughts on Raleigh and All-Star Weekend

The intent of my trip to Raleigh for coverage of All-Star Weekend was simple: Get a feel for the experience from a professional perspective as well as monitor the pulse of the fans, chat up some players I don’t get to see all that often and also those I see on a regular basis in a different element, do some networking and, as Boss Man Paul continually reminded me to do throughout the weekend, have a little fun.

Looking back, that final component is exactly what I’ll remember most about the adventure and my guess is that most that attended All-Star Weekend – be they fans, players, media, league execs, sponsors or those belonging to some other miscellaneous category – would probably say the same thing.

Raleigh, as many others have opined before me, did a wonderful job as a host. The locals were as excited for the event as they were prepared, welcoming, happy and proud of their city, as well they should be. I’d never spent any significant time in these parts in the past but it will definitely be worth another stop in the future.

This being my first big league event, I had consulted with several people who have experienced something of this nature in the past in the weeks leading up to the trip and, while a few cautioned that an occasion of this magnitude could be slightly intimidating at times, I didn’t find that to be true at all for myself and I’m not sure many other first-timers would say otherwise. The vibe, from the moment I picked up my credentials on Friday morning, was light-hearted. At the same time, the entire operation throughout the weekend was first-class. Kudos to the NHL, the city of Raleigh and the Carolina Hurricanes for pulling everything off in fine fashion.

While I was pretty sure I’d find plenty of time to socialize with several fellow writers from the online side of things, I didn’t really know what to expect, in terms of mixing it up with the wide array of traditional media members that would be in attendance. (After all, isn’t that an ongoing “war”?) From a local perspective, that introduction and getting-to-know process has had mixed results in the years I’ve spent around the Lightning. But at Friday night’s media reception, it was clear that we were all among friends. It was a pleasure to spend some time with old colleagues, a host of my contemporaries, new friends and several others whose work I have long admired. By and large, hockey people from all walks of life are the same animal deep down and we certainly proved as much on multiple occasions throughout the weekend.

Friday’s All-Star Fantasy Draft had everyone curious. My first thought on this new wrinkle to the All-Star format was that it was downright silly. But, the more I considered it, the more I appreciated the fact that, unlike other leagues, the NHL was trying to shake things up and spark some interest in an exhibition game that seemed to have lost whatever luster it may have had in the past. But that’s just it, I came to reason. Do we remember the All-Star games of long ago as that much better because they actually were? Or were we looking at things from a much different perspective then? Because I suspect that this kind of showcase is and has always been just that – a showcase – and one that is very much geared toward younger fans. (How else do you explain the tie-in to the Guardian Project and the timing of its release?)

Long before the actual draft, I was given a preview of Fan Fest at the Raleigh Convention Center, where the draft was to be held and during my walk-through, when I noticed the stage setup and the broadcasters rehearsing for the show that night, it was clear just how seriously this was being taken. The stage was a monstrous, elaborate display and this was obviously something that the league and its broadcast partners wanted to come off as top-notch. To that end, I think they did as best they could for a first go-round.

As I realized all of this, I also wondered about the title of the inaugural event, which became a hot topic of discussion all weekend long since, as it was actually going to happen, what level of fantasy, exactly, was going to be involved?

The players seemed into it beforehand and many of them expressed a level of curiosity as to how it would all unfold similar to that of the rest of us. As the results of the draft took place, it looked to me like the boys were doing their best to play it up for the cameras. Eric Staal’s playful ribbing of brother Marc, Patrick Kane doing much of the same to teammate Jonathan Toews, the Sedin vs. Sedin angle and Phil Kessel as “Mr. Irrelevant” showed just that. With this as the standard moving forward, I would imagine future All-Stars will take the personality level of the event higher and higher as they realize more and more that they are there to entertain.

Aside from the entertainment part, there was some work to be done by the team captains and their designated alternates and, in hindsight, after considering the (relatively) highly competitive nature of the All-Star Game itself, maybe drafting each team like this is actually the best way to even things up. Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference or North America vs. The World are both inherently flawed formats, in terms of evening the playing field. When three guys on each side are simply playing pick ‘em, the talent on both sides is pretty evenly split.

So, I would think, with the first of its kind out of the way and having been met with a generally favorable response, the NHL will probably commit to this format for the Ottawa game next year and, beyond that, at least they know it’s a feasible option. It worked once and people seemed to have fun with it. Again, that’s what this weekend is supposed to be about.

Saturday’s skills competition kicked off with a red carpet walk for the players involved and I had a chance to chat with several of them on the way in. Here, without exception, and at other times during the weekend, the players with whom I spoke gave no indication of anything other than an appreciation for the event and a willingness to put on a show for the fans. With that in mind, I can’t subscribe to anyone’s theory that inclusion in All-Star festivities is a burden on the player. It’s an honor that I think they all get and, while an extended mid-season break would be nice and the added travel might be a bit taxing on the individual, once these guys are there, they’re having a good time and that translates directly to the fans.

The game on Sunday was very similar to every other All-Star game I’d ever taken in from afar in that my interest waned at times (that the PA announcer even attempted to keep up with the goals being scored turned out to be an entertaining little side show) but it is what it is. Personally, even as a kid, I was always more excited about the skills competition and the player introductions than the game itself. This weekend, with a slightly different view of things these days, a lot of that remained.

I’ve ripped on this whole “Guardian Project” undertaking for a while now and, after Sunday’s second intermission official debut, there’s plenty of extra material for me to harp on there but I get what they’re doing and, hopefully, it’ll work. (I’ll be sure to let you know how often I run into mohawked, codpiece-wearing youngsters at Lightning games from now on, firing off their “Bolt Spears” at each other whilst running down the concourse.)

In hindsight, my decision to drive to and from All-Star Weekend in Raleigh was probably a mistake. (The trek back, specifically, was a rough one, what with very little sleep and a very full schedule the entire time and all.) I think I’ll take the “more than four = fly” approach from now on. Other than that (and some wonky wireless at RBC on Sunday), I don’t have any complaints whatsoever.

Well done, Raleigh, the Hurricanes and the NHL.

Thanks for a great time.

***

Some Off the Cuff All-Star Weekend Superlatives

Best Grub:  Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Company – Gratis, which always helps (thanks, NHL), but the buffet choices laid out were plentiful and plenty good and an accompanying selection of beer choices like that (Natty Greene’s own arsenal, brewed on site) will always win me over.

Best Pub: Raleigh Times – Rockin’ and raucous (or maybe that was just my party, in particular) and step one in a night that seemed to go on forever.

Best Fans: The Cole’s Knoll tailgate crew – Spotted me out and didn’t throw anything at me, even though I encouraged as much, if necessary, to get my attention. The ladies I met are hardcore hockey fans and they know how to get ready for a big game (or a mid-season exhibition, in this case). Props on the “Speed Limit: 26” sign, altered to match their namesake’s jersey number. (Local law enforcement, you leave that as is now, ya hear?) That I didn’t even think to mooch some of their fantastic fare while I was there is a direct result of having done nothing but eating the rest of the time I spent in the Raleigh area.

Fan Fest Highlight: This picture with Harvey the Hound. (After all, he was Calgary’s lone All-Star representative!)

image
That he accosted me, though I cannot prove as much, is no matter.

Good Call, JJ, Part 1: While chatting up some Islander folks on Friday night, I predicted that Michael Grabner would win the Fastest Skater event at SuperSkills. I win. That Jeremy Roenick, apparently, was totally stunned by Grabner’s feat means JR didn’t do his homework. Grabs is faaaaa-aaaast! JJ 1, JR 0.

Good Call, JJ, Part 2: If you followed me on Twitter throughout the weekend, you probably thought I was crazy when first I hinted at goaltenders competing as part of the Fastest Skater contingency. But I knew from the reactions of Cam Ward and Henrik Lundqvist to my joking about just this that at least two keepers of the crease would be taking part. Soon after my accidental discovery and broadcasting thereof, official word went out. (Even a blind squirrel…)

Bad Call, JJ: Never trust Google Maps over the local street folks. Attempting to lead a frenzied pack of thirsty media hacks to the recommended Saturday evening spot, I consulted the Google Maps app on my phone for walking directions. Fast as fast (or a BlackBerry) can be, the program pointed me a certain way and off we went. Up steps Jerry the Homeless Guy, astutely observing us as all kinds of turned around, and offering his services. Either Google Maps was bass ackwards or JTHG was, cause each source’s directions were in stark contrast with the other’s and I didn’t know who to trust. My brain said Google and my heart sided with Jerry. “Listen to your heart,” a horrible band in the late 1980s once sang and I did, thinking either Jerry’s advice would lead us to the promised land or a dark alley somewhere, where his pals were waiting to thug us up. Lo and behold, Jerry was right and thus, jerrythehomelessguy.org was proposed to take down the giant in Google Maps. Besides, after 32 days sober, as he informed me he’d accomplished before asking for loose change, it’s time to get Jerry back on his feet. And the Force is strong in this one. So much so that, on the way back, the pitch was 71 days sober (and, apparently, I was no longer recognizable in Jerry’s eyes). Good stuff.

Beware the Guardians: Earlier, I said I get what they’re doing but that doesn’t mean I have to “get it”. Witness, my reaction to “The Guardians”:

image
“Whaaa?”

Line of the Weekend (tie): “I’m gonna have to go with myself.” – Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle, then scheduled to compete in the Fastest Skater event, after having been told quite clearly not to pick himself. (Yandle was one of two players yanked from the race in favor of the Ward/Thomas goalie gallop.)

“That’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson-Hans-Christian-Andersen.” – Beered-up fan behind me, “introducing” the Coyotes’ rookie to a buddy during SuperSkills.

All-Star Weekend Media MVP: Brian Metzer, From the Point/Versus: Cool enough to get into the Versus party (we were not) and humble enough to take a good-natured verbal beating from myself and the Puck Daddy crew after quite the compromising situation on Jerry the Homeless Guy Night. Attaboy, Metz!

JJ
jj@kuklaskorner.com
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Filed in: NHL Teams, NHL Talk, NHL Business of Hockey, NHL Media, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: cam+ward, eric+staal, henrik+lundqvist, jeremy+roenick, marc+staal, nhl+all-star+game, nhl+superskills, patrick+kane, phil+kessel, the+guardian+project, tim+thomas

Comments

Paul's avatar

Where’s the picture of you and Heide Androl, you now that has become a KK tradition!

Nice write up too.

Posted by Paul from Motown Area on 02/01/11 at 04:35 PM ET

Jon Jordan's avatar

On that particular part of the mission, I failed.

I feel shame…

JJ

Posted by Jon Jordan from Tampa, FL on 02/01/11 at 04:42 PM ET

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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