COLUMBUS — Allow us to call a (BOOM!) spade a (BOOM!) spade.
When a game that counts speed and physicality as two of its most compelling components, is played at three-quarters speed and with no hits, well, it’s like eating a cake baked with half the eggs and two-thirds of the flour. But don’t take that to mean that this all-star weekend was a waste of time — because it was anything but.
We learned two things here in Columbus.
One, never hold a 17-12 hockey game in a rink where they celebrate each of the home team’s goals with a cannon blast. And, two, the all-star weekend is really about everything other than the actual all-star game.
“The canon has to go,” tweeted Roberto Luongo from Team Toews’ bench during third period play. “I hate the cannon,” echoed Claude Giroux. “It gets me every time.”
OK, the cannon can go. But only as long as the game stays.
Does the all-star game work anymore? Yes, because it’s not about what you watched on your TV back in Toronto or Vancouver. National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman may have inadvertently said it best when he was asked if the Stadium Series, the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic represent overkill when it comes to outdoor games.
“If you’ve been to one you know it’s not the case,” he said. “The impact these games have on the people who attend them, in the markets they take place, is nothing short of staggering. It doesn’t get old, and our fans and teams can’t get enough of them.”
Like the outdoor games, we’ll give you the fact that all-star weekend is not a national concern anymore. The game is slowed and without contact, and simply does not translate to television particularly well. It’s the opposite of playoff hockey, which is the very definition the word “compelling.”
But here in Ohio it was one hell of an event that consumed — and to a certain extent, validated — a market that is every bit deserving of some NHL success. It’s not about you, Canada. This was about Columbus, and whether or not you watched a lick of this game, or the skills competition, it will be a rousing success again a year from now when they hold the all-star weekend in Nashville, Tennessee.
“We are so proud of our city for showing that hockey is such a big deal here,” said Nick Foligno, sitting at the post-game podium next to his Blue Jackets teammate Ryan Johansen. “It’s been really gratifying for both of us.
“Seeing the kids, that was my favourite part. The red carpet [pre-game], the two-hour signing we did today. … Everyone looked like they were having a ball.”
Maybe they should call it the all-star story, instead of game, because the allure of the weekend is part Zemgus Girgensons, the Latvian who led all players in all-star voting, and part Alex Ovechkin, who finally revealed why he wanted that free Honda so badly.
It turns out that Ovechkin has a soft spot for the Nova Cool Cats Special Hockey, Inc., based in Northern Virginia. He has a connection there with Ann Schaub, a 10-year-old girl with down syndrome who went on a sushi dinner date with Ovechkin in September. Honda ended up freeing up a car for Ovechkin after the game, and he will turn it over to the charitable organization this week.
“It means a lot,” Ovechkin told NHL.com. “Honda connected with my agent and they just gave me a car so I’m going to donate to Cool Cats and that sweet little girl.”
That’s what this weekend is all about, and the fact that they sold out Nationwide Arena for two straight nights. Columbus was literally teeming with hockey jerseys from the moment I touched down here on Thursday.
Like an outdoor game at Dodger Stadium that may or may not turn your crank, the local hockey community grazed on this at Fan Fests and other events for days. In return, this group of NHLers, playing at three-quarters speed, produced more goals (29) than in any all-star game in NHL history.
Said comedian/colourman Jim Ralph during the second intermission, “The fastest skating I’ve seen tonight is when the period is over and the goalies head for the bench.”
Poor Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pittsburgh goaltender emerged for his turn in Team Foligno’s net in the middle frame, and was promptly tagged for six goals in 9:22. Some were stoppable (not many) while on others he was met with an all-star calibre player who had all the time in the world, standing unchecked in the slot.
Fleury ended up getting torched for seven goals on 16 shots, while at home, injured all-star goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Pekka Rinne likely cracked a cold one in relief.
“It was probably the longest 20 minutes of my career,” Fleury said. “We are at this game to have fun, but at one time, it was frustrating. Normally, I’ll be quick out of the game way before giving up seven goals.”
Perhaps Fleury would prefer a trip to Cabo a year from now, and he would likely have some company among some of the game’s superstars who get invited every year.
But there will always be enough damned fine hockey players to put this show on, and ignite another market that deserves some recognition with an all-star weekend.
And if you don’t feel like watching, there’s a golf tournament down the dial.