COLUMBUS — There are those who would laugh at the whole concept of the National Hockey League’s All-Star Game. At Friday night’s NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft, it was a lot more fun just to laugh along with it.
Jonathan Toews drafted Toronto’s Phil Kessel, then quipped, "He’s one of the most coachable players out there." And a few minutes later, Toews traded Kessel for Tyler Seguin — again.
"We’re trying to enjoy ourselves," Kessel said, taking the humour in stride. "We get this break in the year and you’ve got to have fun with it, rest, relax, and get ready for the final push.
"I think this league’s different than any other league. I don’t think you would see that in any league around and that’s why this league’s special."
Yes, if you can’t have a competitive, hard-hitting game on Sunday, then you’d best have a few yuks on Friday and Saturday night. And maybe a few pops as well, as Alex Ovechkin and others emerged from a cup-littered waiting room to don their All-Star jerseys, enjoying the break the way any red-blooded Canadian 20-something-year-old male would a winter break in Mexico.
There’s plenty of time to clear their heads before Sunday’s game. Assuming those cups were filled with adult beverages.
"When you come from L.A. to Columbus," deadpanned Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, "you struggle to stay hydrated. We made sure to get a lot of water into us."
The two team captains Nick Foligno, flanked by assistants Doughty and Patrick Kane, and Toews, who took counsel from Team Canada Olympic teammates Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash. Asked if he outfoxed Chicago teammate Kane on the Kessel-Seguin deal, Toews said, "I don’t think I really have to comment on that one. Do the math."
The first pick in the draft was Ryan Johansen, chosen by Columbus teammate Foligno, and Kessel did not have to suffer the indignity of being the final pick in the draft — again. That honour fell equally to Nashville’s Filip Forsberg and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who both received a 2015 Honda Accord for their troubles.
For a while it appeared that Alex Ovechkin would go last, but…
"There was some thinking early in the event that we might let him to slide (until the end). But then he embraced it a little bit too much for his own best interests," laughed Toews. "There’s never a dull moment with Ovi."
With players withdrawing due to injuries, the final roster sees Team Toews with 17 skaters compared to 18 for Team Foligno. The NHL’s Board of Governors meet here on Saturday morning, followed by the Skills Competition Saturday night at Nationwide Arena.
Radim Vrbata is here from the Canucks, his reward for a half-season of work as the Sedin twins’ triggerman. Now he’s here, while Henrik and Daniel are at home on Vancouver. Weird.
"That’s what I said when I was selected," Vrbata said. "I feel like I’m just a beneficiary of how that line worked and how everything went for us as a line. They could as easily be here instead of me and nobody could say a word. I don’t think it’s just my game, it’s the whole thing. They deserve lots of credit."
Count Vrbata in a long line of people — myself included — who describe the Sedins as two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
"I heard that they’re great guys. I think they’re even better than I thought or what I heard," Vrbata said. "They’re unbelievable people. Just so helpful, that made it so much easier for me to transfer from Phoenix to Vancouver. Maybe not a big thing, when you come to a new team, a new city — it’s picking me up for the first couple practices to show me around the city. Introducing staff to you at the rink. It’s little things, it makes a huge difference."
Brent Seabrook is at his first All-Star game at age 29, a Richmond, B.C. kid living the dream here in Columbus this weekend. How often did he dream of a game like this?
"All the time," Seabrook said. "It’s a rite of passage for a kid growing up in Canada. Scoring that Stanley Cup winner in your front yard, playing hockey with all your buddies, pretending you’re certain players and playing in All-Star Games. I remember going to the All-Star Game in Vancouver. My dad took me and my brother. It was pretty cool to be able to be there and watch those guys skate around and play the game. That was definitely something that I dreamed of and I never really thought it would come true."
Dustin Byfuglien, who owns a mighty slapper from the point himself, picks Shea Weber as the favourite in Saturday’s hardest shot competition. Weber, of course, is just hoping he doesn’t hurt himself trying to conjure up a 101 mph blast.
"It’s actually tough because we have that warmup, but you don’t have the opportunity to just walk in and take a slap shot," he said. "You want to make sure you’re loose. You’ve shot a puck a bunch of times and it gets repetitive, but you don’t want to hurt yourself or blow your back out because for the most part you’re coming in cold. You’re sitting around watching the other events and just come right in and wire pucks. That’s definitely a weird warmup."
Zdeno Chara still holds the NHL record of 108.8 mph, set two years ago in Ottawa. Can Weber break it? "Someone is going to have to beat that one day so we’ll see … hopefully somebody here can do that," he said.
Phil Kessel was as talkative as ever we’ve seen him here in Columbus on Media Day. Since Randy Carlyle was fired, the Toronto scribes say, Kessel has been a totally different guy, and a much more willing interview. Of course, he was asked here about thrown jerseys, and troubles in Leaf Land.
"I don’t think you should ever throw your jersey on the ice, especially … during the play. That’s pretty dangerous for the guys on the ice," he said. "Obviously, fans are upset in Toronto. The same stuff happens over and over — I understand why they’re upset. But we’re trying as hard as we can. I mean, we’re giving our all every night. Right now, we’re just not getting it done."