TAMPA, Fla. – It’s for the children. And, new this year, it’s also for the money.
The NHL added a little incentive to its All-Star Saturday night in Tampa, putting up $25,000 for the winner of each of the six individual events.
Even with a little pocket change up for grabs, the event remained as light-hearted and loose as always.
“The cool thing about playing in the NHL compared to other leagues is that when we’re finished basically killing each other on the ice, we can get together as friends. We watch each other’s backs and do what’s best for the game — and that’s what the All-Star Game is all about,” says Central Division captain P.K. Subban. “Personally, I think the NHL All-Star Weekend is the best out of all the sports.
“You can be yourself and have fun. Kids that come wanna see Connor McDavid and Crosby and Kane and watch them put on a show.”
Here are eight highlights from Saturday’s kid-friendly showcase, the 2018 All-Star Skills Competition.
Be afraid! McDavid is still the fastest
They didn’t want to face him.
As the announcement of the Skills event competitors was delayed until Saturday afternoon, the word had begun circulating: Out of fear, McDavid’s fellow all-stars were declining entry into the fastest skater race, which McDavid crushed in Los Angeles last winter with a lap of 13.02 seconds.
Brayden Point (13.58) and Jack Eichel (13.83) posted excellent times, but McDavid whizzed around in 13.45 to become the first repeat champion in the event’s history.
Quick: Who’s more frightening?
Welcome home, Boyler
All due respect to Taylor Hall, the New Jersey Devils’ best player, but his injury has given all-star weekend the hero it needed: Brian Boyle, Hall’s perfect replacement.
Jon Cooper, who coached Boyle when the checking centre was with Tampa, called it. He said Boyle would receive an ovation just as loud as those for the Lightning’s own all-stars.
“When they announce his name, that place will be rocking,” Cooper predicted.
When Boyle’s face appeared on the Jumbotron at warm-ups and when his name was called over the PA system, he was showered with cheers and applause.
“I’ve definitely felt the love from all around the league but particularly here in Tampa,” Boyle said. “It was wild. It was emotional. It’s just a ton of fun to be here.
“It was my dream to play in the league my whole life. It was a dream at one point to play in this event, but this is truly something special. My dad’s here.
“I’m the luckiest guy going right now.”
Duck! The Hardest Shot can be an exercise in embarrassment
Some of the best hockey players in today’s world are a little hesitant to step in front of a radar gun, lest we find out how soft some of their muffins really are.
The league found it challenging to muster up five volunteers for the Hardest Shot contest, a domain dominated in recent history by Shea Weber and Zeno Chara. Combined, those two Howitzer-packing defenceman have claimed the slapper title for eight years running.
Even with Chara and Weber absent, the stars weren’t exactly clamouring to take over their reign.
“Last year they put me in hardest shot, put the spotlight on me,” Drew Doughty said. “Luckily P.K. backed out, so they put [Nathan] MacKinnon against me and I won, but I only shot like 92 [mph], so I don’t want to do it again.”
Claude Giroux agreed: “I don’t want to do hardest shot, that’s for sure. That wouldn’t turn out well.”
Alex Ovechkin did step to the plate and delivered a 101.3 mph blast. Well below Chara’s record-setting 108.8 mph bullet in 2012, but good enough for the win.
Ovie was the only contestant to crack three digits on this night, and he became the first forward to win the contest since countryman Sergei Fedorov way back in 2002.
During Ovechkin’s post-shot interview, he was asked if he’ll score 50 goals this season.
His response? “You know me.”
NHL embraces Gasparrrrrilla
Think Mardi Gras but with eye patches and puffy shirts.
Since 1904, Tampa has hosted Gasparilla, an annual pirate festival celebrating the mythical legend of Spanish buccaneer Jose Gaspar. It’s basically an excuse to slosh around town day-drinking, saying “Matey!” and gathering beads.
It’s fun, and the grand parade collided with Saturday’s skills competition. So we had Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman strutting around the bowels of Amalie Arena in full pirate garb (Karlsson wore his captain’s hat out for warm-ups, too, which was a nice touch) and the Stanley Cup strapping on a life vest and going for tall-ship cruise.
Hedman ordered the costumes for the two Swedes on Amazon Wednesday night and put a rush delivery on them.
“It’s always been something that I wanted to do. Unfortunately my wife always dresses me as a woman during the Halloween. So this was my big chance,” Karlsson said.
“I like pirates for some reason. I don’t know why. Maybe I was a pirate in a previous life.”
Let’s pass on the passing contest
In an effort to keep the proceedings fresh for both players and fans, the NHL introduced a couple new skill tests: the passing challenge for skaters with soft hands and the save streak for the dialled-in goaltender.
“Guys were a little nervous trying something they’d never seen before,” Steven Stamkos said. “When you’re doing specific skills that you never practice in a non-game situation, the mind starts to wander a bit.”
Watching one guy cruise around passing pucks off boards and into mini nets isn’t exactly edge-of-your seat action, but it was nice to see St. Louis defenceman Alex Pietrangelo — surprisingly, a first-time all-star — win the contest and $25,000 for his butter mitts.
“I’m a D-man with a straight curve,” Pietrangleo said. “Boring, but it works.”
The Flower dethrones The King
Much more watchable was the brand-new save streak, which asks goalies to go on a run of breakaway stops and essentially replaces the goofy breakaway challenge. That retired event began with shooters wearing funny hats and capes and reached peaked silliness in 2017 when Subban dressed as Jaromir Jagr and Brent Burns donned a wookiee mask as the Star Wars theme played.
Subban threw his glove at Henrik Lundqvist in a failed attempt to throw him off his game during the second of his two five-stop streaks.
Nashville’s Pekka Rinne who went brick wall, denying the Metropolitan Division 13 straight times before Giroux went full slap shot and broke his stick in celebration.
Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury topped that with a remarkable 14 consecutive saves as “Let It Go” from the Frozen soundtrack filled the rink, flashing his pearly smile all the while.
“He’s picked up right where he left off,” said Crosby, who went out to dinner with his old Pittsburgh pal Friday night. “Their team’s playing great. He’s been awesome.”
"I won?" pic.twitter.com/HJ62kTQqXL
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) January 28, 2018
Boeser’s aim is dead on
Ye ole shooting accuracy contest was upgraded with a digital twist, opting for a random LED lighting system instead of the classic Styrofoam that busted in satisfying ways.
Vancouver rookie Brock Boeser, who arrived in Tampa nervous and a little excited to meet Patrick Kane, had a smart strategy.
“I’m just gonna try and rip it and hit the targets as fast as I can,” said Boeser.
He did just that, and beat out defending champ Sidney Crosby in the marksmanship test.
Johnnies be good at puck control
Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau edged out New York’s John Tavares in a stickhandling obstacle course that challenged the stars to deke pucks in tight and flip them through holes waist- and shoulder-high.
So difficult was the latter for some, that Karlsson and Tyler Seguin even resorted to using their hands. Eek.
“Everybody’s watching you. It’s quiet, and you start overthinking stuff. It’s almost easier to fail than to succeed,” Karlsson said. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”