Sunday, January 27, 2008


Hockey's All Star Break 2008

I have never been a big fan of all star games in any sport, particularly when the fans select the players. It is a popularity contest, pure and simple, and does not reflect the talent that exists in the game.

Of all four major sports, the National Football League’s Pro Bowl leaves the most to be desired. Players go through the motions in the most violent of all professional sports. No one wants to be tagged as the guy who ruined another guy’s career with a vicious hit in a meaningless game.

Baseball’s All Star game likely comes as close to the real thing as any of them. Pitchers pitch at normal speed, batters attempt to hit the ball, and run hard after contact. I can only think of one instance when a player took the game far too seriously. Pete Rose hammered catcher Ray Fosse as he approached the plate on a close play, shortening the Fosse’s career considerably. (yet another reason to love Rose.)

The highlight of the basketball all star weekend is the slam dunk contest. The all star game itself is a real yawner, with little or no defence. Players walk the floor, and let the score run to incredible heights. But the slam dunk contest captures the imagination of all basketball fans. Players are required to show ingenuity, athleticism, and skill. They are judged on their shots, and their success. Vince Carter did himself proud as a winner one year when he was with Toronto. Steve Nash added a soccer flair to the contest when he headed a ball to teammate Amare Stoudemire for a nifty dunk.

The National Hockey League began naming all stars in 1931. The first all star game in 1933 was held as a fund raiser for Ace Bailey, a Toronto Maple Leaf player who was knocked out of the game in a high sticking incident with Boston’s Eddie Shore. Since that time, the format has changed almost as many times as the game has taken place.

In 1979, the Challenge Cup between the Soviet Union and the NHL All Stars replaced the game. In 1987, there were two games held between the Soviets and the National Leaguers. There were no games in 1995, 2005, and 2006.

This year’s game has the East against the West, according to the conferences in the league. The night before the game, the league has set up skills competitions, and a scrimmage for the game’s young stars.

The players who attend the skills competitions, and take part in them, show real competitiveness from the start. There are significant elements of pride involved. No matter what the game, nor the activity, these guys do not like to lose.

The competitions consist of skating, stick-handling, shooting, and passing skills. (Body checking and fighting skills will only be displayed in regular season games.)

For the most part, these little challenges are enjoyed by the fans. They showcase the players’ skills, often in a one-on-one format.

The speed skating competition got a little fouled up this year. It consisted of a race from the goal line to the far blue line-a short sprint. I would prefer a once around the rink, circle both goals type of race. No matter. They gave us this race.

They messed the race up in a couple of key areas. Ilya Kovalchuk represented the home town Atlanta Thrashers in the race. He clearly won his race over Shawn Horcoff of the Oilers, but the judges gave the nod to Horcoff. Brian Campbell of the Sabres lost to Chicago’s Duncan Keith, but was awarded the victory. Horcoff won the final. Next time, have the boys race the clock. Get it right.

The Western Conference won the Shootout, with Dion Phaneuf deking Tim Thomas for the final goal. The Washington Capitals’ young star, Alexander Ovechkin, was worth the price of admission all by himself in the event. He enjoys the game, and the success he achieves, more than any European player. Ever. Just a joy to watch.

The fans loved the wide open three on three competition for the Young Stars. The twelve minute game featured plenty of scoring chances with the Hawks’ Patrick Kane showing his stuff with two breakaway goals.

Jason Arnott lost the Shooting accuracy contest to the Leafs Tomas Kaberle in a sudden death format. Zdeno Chara won the hardest shot competition with a speed of 103.1 miles per hour. (A good reason never to consider becoming a goaltender!)

The All Star game itself? Another slightly entertaining contest, with a few fairly important personnel on the sidelines: Sidney Crosbie, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo.

Rick Nash got two lovely goals in the actual all star game game. He also scored one of the prettiest goals of the season just before the break. He should have been in the breakaway competition. He moves the puck from side to side so well, has such a long reach. Goalies cannot cover the six feet between the posts when he wheels in from the slot. Ditto for the Senators’ Jason Spezza. Where was he?

Now back to more serious issues. The race to the Stanley Cup. Always the best part of the best game in the world.

James Hurst –

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