FORT LAUDERDALE — I say this both as someone with a deep understanding of how much hockey matters in places like Manitoba, Minnesota and Montreal, and also a pasty person who’s not a natural ally of the sun and is currently experiencing the sting of sandal-rub blisters: When it comes to the NHL All-Star Game, pucks and palm trees really are a fantastic fit.
One thing you pick up fast at an All-Star weekend: even if there’s a part of every player that would rather be spending the little break from the season on a secluded island somewhere, everybody can quickly find a way to enjoy an event that essentially exists to celebrate your greatness.
Still, you take an ASG and put it in a place where the weather forces it all to be an indoor happening, and I’m not sure you get the same size grins you see when you put it in South Florida and takeover a stretch of Fort Lauderdale Boulevard.
Even on Thursday, when players were doing something that’s probably tied with leg squats in terms of the least-fun part of their jobs — talking endlessly to the media — the vibes were unmistakably good. Two Florida Panthers, Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov, have been willing hosts and, as the latter said, Florida really doesn’t have anything to prove to anybody in terms of being a desirable spot to be and play.
“When people come here, I don’t think there’s one person that doesn’t like to be here,” Barkov told NHL.com. “Everything you need is in Florida — weather, restaurants, everything.”
Any hockey fan roaming through the All-Star Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park is certainly going to find what they are looking for. And, judging by the merch on display, there’s definitely a wide range of team supporters here, from a guy with a T-shirt sporting the letters CBJ over an outline of Ohio, to a person dressed head-to-toe — including sneakers — in Bruins black and gold to, yes, probably as many Toronto Maple Leafs logos as any other club despite the team being located an entire country away. There was also a steady flow of people buying new stuff in the merchandise tent, where those filthy reverse-retro jerseys were calling more than one fan’s name.
Wherever your team loyalties lie, everyone can get a kick out of seeing the Stanley Cup flanked by upright surfboards just a few feet from the Atlantic Ocean, or an outdoor basketball court that’s been repurposed as a ball hockey venue or washing machines stacked on top of each other where kids (and adults) can practice their shooting skills, just like Sidney Crosby used to do when he was a youngster.
People were lined up at “Autograph Cove” to get a chance to meet a range of players from Panthers third-pair defenceman Josh Mahura to a Hall of Famer who redefined that same position, Paul Coffey.
No, the natives here are obviously never going to devour the game en masse like they do in hockey’s heartland. But don’t forget, one of the best-run franchises in the league — the Tampa Bay Lightning — is housed in this state and the Panthers themselves, current disappointing season notwithstanding, are in a better spot overall than they’ve been for much of their nearly 30-year history. Tkachuk had Florida on his short list of teams he’d ink a long-term deal with last summer when he wanted out of Calgary, and Barkov has signed on to be there through this entire decade. The 27-year-old Finn has got a chance to supplant another prominent Panther and proud South Florida resident, Roberto Luongo, as the all-time face of the franchise.
One of the oversized golf carts that cruise up and down the strip here was blasting the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” and there’s no doubt in my mind the ASG needs to do the same, pushing what is, after all, a wintertime sport in burgs all over the league. That said, you do wonder if for every one time you drop it somewhere frigid, you take a page out of happy hour here and do two more in the sun.