Monday, January 26, 2015

My (mostly) nice weekend with the NHL all-stars

I’m not a huge fan of NHL All-Star Weekend. You probably got that impression from last week’s post, in which I spent roughly 3,000 words listing some of the event’s biggest problems. Let’s just say that was the edited version.

Shortly after that post went live, I was on a plane to Columbus, site of this year’s game. By the time I’d touched down and checked into my hotel, All-Star Weekend had managed to get even worse with news that a pair of the game’s biggest stars, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, had pulled out. Erik Johnson soon followed. The whole thing was shaping up as a disaster.

But over the course of the weekend, I spoke to a few people who’d read last week’s post. And while they generally agreed with the points I’d made, they all gave me the kind of side-eye that suggested I may have gone Krusty Burglar on the whole concept. So for today’s post, I’m going to switch lanes. We’re going positive. Nothing but nice. I am going to make 25 observations about an All-Star Weekend spent in Columbus, and they will all be positive, damn it.

Never let it be said I don’t challenge myself as a writer. Let’s put on our happy faces and do this.

Friday Afternoon: Media Day

Media day is a two-hour affair that sees most of the players led out to podiums where they could take questions from the media and/or stare into the distance while awkwardly waiting for someone to notice them.

No. 1 — Captain Nick Foligno: The announcement that Foligno would be captain of one of the teams raised some eyebrows. While he’s having a decent season and plays for the host team, the Blue Jackets winger isn’t exactly a household name, and you had to wonder if the NHL would have been better served with a bigger star.

But Foligno was having fun with the role, and he had been ever since he was told he’d be captain. That was especially true for his most visible role of the weekend: making his team’s picks during Friday night’s All-Star draft. A few hours before draft time, he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to bother meeting with his assistants, Drew Doughty and Patrick Kane, but figured he could draw on his fantasy football experience if needed. (He joked that he might cross names out of a magazine.)

This was actually the second straight All-Star Game for which Foligno played for the host team. Three years ago, he was a depth guy on the Senators when the game came to Ottawa. I asked him if, back then, he saw himself being named All-Star captain the next time around. He laughed and admitted he did not.

Not too many fans did either, even as recently as a week ago. But Foligno is a likable guy who has been through a lot in recent years, and it was nice to see him get some national recognition.

No. 2 — Ryan Getzlaf takes aim: Getzlaf was an assistant captain for Jonathan Toews’s team, and he didn’t seem to be taking the job too seriously. He said he hadn’t put much thought into his rankings and was worried that the notoriously focused Toews might force him to attend a strategy meeting. “Johnny’s pretty serious at some points,” he said. “I’m going to bring my empty portfolio and open it up like I’m going to talk about something.”

When Getzlaf was asked who he’d like to see go last, he said he was disappointed fellow Duck Corey Perry wasn’t there to do the honors. But he had a backup plan: Drew Doughty, the Kings defenseman and Getzlaf’s occasional teammate on Team Canada. “Dewey could use it. We’d knock him down a little bit, let him sweat it out at the end.” He seemed genuinely disappointed to learn Doughty was an assistant for Team Foligno and wasn’t eligible to be picked.

No. 3 — Doughty responds: Did I immediately find Doughty and narc on Getzlaf? Yes I did. He had a laugh about it, before suggesting he might conspire to help teammate Anze Kopitar win the car that goes with being the last pick. Then Doughty paused and asked whether Getzlaf was in the draft pool. (He wasn’t.)

The moral: Next year, Doughty and Getzlaf can’t both be assistant captains. This grudge match needs to go down. Make it happen, NHL.

No. 4 — Phil Kessel holds court: By now, you know the drill with Kessel and the media. He doesn’t have the personality to deal with it, he’s occasionally rude, and he always looks like he’d prefer to be anywhere else.

That’s why it was so strange to see Kessel show up on Friday and happily spend 25 minutes holding court. And this wasn’t contractual-obligation Phil — he was engaging and entertaining on subjects ranging from the struggling Leafs (he thinks they can still turn it around) to trade rumors (he wants to stay) to college football (he’s a big fan) to Canadian TV shows (they’re awful).

Maybe the best moment came when he was discussing the Leafs’ recent road trips and made an offhand mention of how he’d watched every movie the hotels had to offer. Then he caught himself, quickly adding, “But not the bad ones. Stay away from those!”

It was like watching Neo figure out how to dodge bullets. I’m not sure the world is ready for a media-savvy Phil Kessel.

Moment I can’t mention because I’m trying to only say nice things: Younger players typically get asked for their favorite All-Star memory from their youth. Flames rookie Johnny Gaudreau’s answer: Kane’s superman routine during the skills competition breakaway event … way back in 2012.

We are all so, so old.

Friday Night: The Draft

This relatively new addition to the weekend, being held for just the third time, sees the players draft their own teams during a made-for-TV event.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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