ST. LOUIS – As the NHL Skills Competition celebrated its 30th anniversary Friday night in St. Louis, Rick Tocchet marvelled at how far the showcase has come since his own nerve-wracking participation in the first-ever accuracy shooting contest.
“Now you see the way Patrick Kane skates around the cones or the power of Connor McDavid. It’s just amazing what’s happened in 30 years,” Tocchet said.
Consider that all eight Fastest Skater participants would’ve topped Sergei Fedorov’s championship lap (14.363) in 1992, when that event was first unveiled.
“The skills are always fun. Everybody likes to rip on each other. A guy misses a target or a guy’s shot is not that hard, they rip on each other.
“A lot of these guys are friends with each other, so I’ll just step back and watch all the camaraderie going on.”
Here are the highlights from the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, which was by turns upsetting, record-setting, and goofy.
Barzal dethrones McDavid as fastest in the game
Connor McDavid’s reign is over. The three-peat did not become a four-peat.
Mathew Barzal came this close to posting the quickest lap in Fastest Skater history, finishing a miniscule 0.003 behind Dylan Larkin’s record-setting run of 13.172 in 2016.
Barzal’s blazing run of 13.175 edged out runner-up McDavid’s 13.215 and Chris Kreider’s 13.509, prompting this enthusiastic reaction from Anthony Duclair:
Barzal’s time is actually faster than any registered by McDavid over his three-year run as champ.
“I don’t think I could have skated a better lap. I don’t think I could have done it again,” Barzal said. “I was talking to him earlier in the lobby of the hotel. I might’ve gotten lucky this week. He was on a break. His break actually happened for a few days, so he hadn’t been on skates for a while. We just finished two days ago, so I was fresh on my skates.”
Afterward, McDavid was asked for the secret to maintaining speed around the corners.
“I don’t know,” he smiled. “You’ll have to ask Barzal.”
McDavid had singled out Kreider, who grew up loving the Fastest Skater on TV, as his toughest competitor coming into the race.
“All I’m worried about is not going into the wall,” Krieder chuckled pre-race. “I got a bad reputation on our team whenever we’re doing our skate tests at the beginning of the year of catching an edge and going hard into the wall. So, I just want to come out of it healthy.”
Nathan MacKinnon, too, was concerned about his health.
“I think doing a lap [after] sitting there for two hours is dangerous, so I’d rather do the concourse shooting,” MacKinnon said. “It’s like Topgolf, so that sounds stress-free.”
Brand-new Shooting Stars contest is a hit
Good on the NHL for at least trying to mix things up, doing away with the tedious passing contest and awkward obstacle course in favour of the “funky” and “fresh” (Barzal’s words) Shooting Stars event.
As the players stood in sneakers on a platform at the 100-level concourse, they took aim with orange pucks at a myriad of targets on the ice, assigned with various points totals. The juiciest being a replica Gateway Arch (10 points) at centre ice.
Think Topgolf on ice.
Thankfully, the 10 participants got to practise Thursday, which cut down on the jitters.
“It’s weird. You’re elevated. You don’t know how much power to put into it,” Mitch Marner said. “Hopefully I won’t embarrass myself.”
Marner and Patrick Kane tied with a score of 22, forcing a sudden-death, one-shot, $30,000 playoff won by Kane — the most hated man in the building.
“The boys were asking me why I was getting booed, and I said, ‘I shouldn’t have scored those overtime playoff goals against them and maybe they wouldn’t have booed me,’” Kane said.
“It was fun to win it. I think I’m a fan of kind of the original skills stuff… but I understand where they’re trying to go with it where they’re trying to create some different events.”
The event’s loudest ovations went to Brett Hull, who was dragged out of retirement for a surprise guest shot, and local boy Matthew Tkachuk, who doffed his Calgary Flames sweater to reveal a Yadier Molina St. Louis Cardinals jersey.
“I was more thinking about the jersey thing, and that’s all I really cared about,” Tkachuk said. “I didn’t care how I was going to do with the targets.”
…And ten months later it was added to the NHL Skills Competition. https://t.co/mfoqqFFkbb
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 25, 2020
Canada tops Team USA in women’s 3-on-3
In a fast-paced, scoring-chance-loaded, 20-minute 3-on-3 exhibition between the best female players from Canada and the U.S., Canada won 2-1 thanks to some brilliant goaltending by Ann-Renée Desbiens.
While we weren’t fans of the white and grey sweaters the women wore — American and Canadian colours would’ve been nice — the action was fantastic.
“The skill and ability that women’s hockey has been able to develop is incredible,” Braden Holtby said. “It’s a really good stage to show everyone how talented and impressive the girls are.”
With no proper unifying league to participate in, it’s been a challenging ride for hockey’s elite women. And several members of the game used the platform to encourage more interest.
“When you watch the women’s game, there’s perceptions maybe it’s slower, maybe it’s not as physical, they’re not as talented, they’re not as big. We’ve heard it all our whole life. But I would say we’re equally as entertaining,” argued Kendall Coyne Schofield, the runaway star of last year’s Skills Competition.
“It’s an atmosphere you dream about often. You want to see a full building of people supporting women’s hockey. We know we can get there. If you build it, they will come. If we had the proper infrastructure day in and day out, we will have that many fans routinely.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman stopped short of committing to another women’s game at the 2021 All-Star weekend in Sunrise, Fla., but this marks the third consecutive year the NHL has increased its spotlight on the women’s game at its midseason gala.
“Girls, it gives them a lot of hope,” said Brianna Decker. “We’re doing what we can to help grow our game as much as possible. Thanks to the NHL, we have an opportunity this week to do that.”
T.J. Oshie is a father of two girls. They accompanied Dad on the bench and saw the women participate up close.
“My two girls aren’t too big into skating yet, but one day they will be. For them to look up to role models like this and see them at the NHL All-Star weekend, I think it’s pretty cool,” Oshie said. “Very encouraging.”
Yes, Shea Weber still wields the Hardest Shot
It was a fun touch having Blues legend and seven-time Hardest Shot champ Al MacInnis come out and take a clapper with his wooden stick before the current generation started winding up.
John Carlson won the 2019 event with a 102.8-mph blast, so when the Norris favourite ripped a 104.5, favourite Shea Weber had his work cut out for him.
Weber casually stepped up with his 122-flex weapon and hammered a 105.9, followed by 106.5, snatching his fourth Hardest Shot crown.
Did Carlson believe he had it won?
“No,” Carlson said. “I think I knew all along that we were all just a part of the show.”
Weber was a three-peat champion in the event from 2015 through 2017, but was disappointed that his numbers declined. He slammed a 108.5-mph blast in ’15, which was just 0.3 off Zdeno Chara’s all-time record, but that dropped a bit in 2016 (108.1) and again in 2017 (102.8).
“I think everyone here is competitive and puts a little bit of pressure on themselves. Everybody wants to win, no matter what,” Weber said.
“It’s fun and it is a good time, but at the same time you want to do your best.”
Slavin’s aim is second to none
Jaccob Slavin is on point.
The Hurricanes star — a late replacement for injured teammate Dougie Hamilton — took down all five targets in the Accuracy Shooting contest in a cool 9.505 seconds, collecting a $30,000 cheque for his efforts. (That would equal an hourly wage of $11,368,421.)
Slavin’s time was the fastest ever since the NHL switched to a timed, five-target format in 2012, besting Jamie Benn’s 10.204.
It also marked the first time in 12 years that a defenceman won the contest (Tomas Kaberle, 2008) — back when the targets were Styrofoam and busting them brought satisfaction. Sometimes analogue is better than digital.
Binnington stones “Justin Bieber” en route to Save Streak victory
Does he look nervous? Not a chance.
Jordan Binnington made 10 consecutive stops in the Save Streak to swipe the contest from Andrei Vasilevskiy (nine) and make the locals happy.
The highlight was San Jose’s Tomas Hertl pulling out an oversized Justin Bieber mask from his pants and sliding it over his face before taking his shootout attempt, a nod to the upcoming Bieber vs. Binny bet.
“I actually fell down and the mask started moving, so I couldn’t even see the puck,” Hertl said. “I was nervous to finish it, but it works well and it was fun.”
“You gotta stay humble and continue to build and prepare for The Biebs,” Binnington deadpanned on TV. “I know you’re training, buddy. Keep working.”
We loved Binnington’s soundtrack choice for his saves — Ginuwine’s “Pony” — but we would’ve liked to see him try to extend his streak to see if he could’ve taken down Marc-Andre Fleury’s record of 14 in a row.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 25, 2020