Past was present, but eyes on future

While honoring the past and lamenting the present, the NHL's future should be celebrated.

Updated: February 9, 2004, 2:40 AM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The old man gave us all something to see -- and even to cling to -- Sunday afternoon at the 54th National Hockey League All-Star Game.

Mark Messier, 43 years old and looking for all the world like a kid not only in a candy store but in one he built, franchised and made into a success, established an All-Star Game record with his 14th career assist when he set up division rival Adrian Aucoin of the New York Islanders for the first goal in this almost-annual affair.

Mark Messier
Getty ImagesWas Mark Messier passing the torch to Alex Tanguay and a new generation?
The Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers legend, playing in his 15th All-Star Game, later scored a goal for the Eastern Conference team in a reasonably well-played 6-4 win over the Western Conference before a record crowd at the Xcel Energy Center.

And when you factor in that another graybeard, the West's Joe Sakic, had a hat trick and earned MVP honors, and that hockey legends Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Wayne Gretzky and Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, were introduced as members of a fan-ballot all-time legends team, you couldn't help but pick up on the old-school trend.

Throw in the fact that the game was back in Minnesota for the first time since 1972, that all the players and even the on-ice officials wore retro sweaters and that the league dedicated the game to the memory of Herb Brooks, a Minnesota native and coach of the "Miracle on Ice" 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, and it was not only a tip of the proverbial hat to history but a warm and fuzzy day for the NHL.

While Messier sat on the bench, flashing the puck he put past Nashville Predators netminder Tomas Vokoun, there was no doubt in his mind he likely scored his last goal in an All-Star Game. There was also the sense that it might be the last such moment for a long, long time.

And that's fine.

Nobody does history as well as the NHL. It's a league that dates back to before anyone you ever knew was born. It's a history that several of the most hallowed U.S.-based professional sports operations admire, but you won't see me getting all misty-eyed and start pining for the good old days of hockey.

I had too much fun watching the kids play.

Look, the NHL does have its problems, and Saturday's he-said, she-said, nyah-nyah gripe-fest between two of its principal leaders, commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Bob Goodenow, was a clear indication of just how ugly, difficult and cantankerous the next few months (maybe years) will be.

There are problems everywhere -- on the ice, off the ice, and even in how they handle those problems -- but there is one unassailable truth about the game that even it's most accomplished detractors can't deny: The league has talent. Aging-but-still-magnificent talent in the form of Messier, Mike Modano (Dallas), Jeremy Roenick (Philadelphia), Gary Roberts (Toronto) and Sakic. There is talent of the moment in players such as Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund (Vancouver), Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit), Scott Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur (New Jersey), and Joe Thornton (Boston).

But the up-and-coming talent was the kids -- and not only are they good, they're almost too numerous to mention.

"There was so much [new] talent out there it was incredible," Messier said. "If it weren't for the play of the goaltenders [who were mostly young, as well], the game would have gotten completely out of hand. The players who were out there tonight would have definitely given the players of 10 or 15 years ago a run for their money. The game is so much different today, so different from when I started, but the kids are good. There was so much talent on the ice tonight, it was..."

Exactly. There was so much good young talent on the ice in Minnesota that the second-leading scorer of all time found himself without the words to express it.

Run down the list.

Brodeur might be a fixture in goal at these things, but Jose Theodore of Montreal is a relative newcomer (this was his second All-Star outing) and their Eastern Conference netmate, Roberto Luongo, was making his first appearance. Brodeur played well and so did Theodore, but it was Luongo, the Florida Panthers' netminder, who secured the win for the East.

In the West, Marty Turco was making just his second appearance in an All-Star Game and was a starter. He, too, was followed by two newcomers, Vokoun and Dwayne Roloson (Minnesota).

Up front, the roster was littered with young blood, including 19-year-old Columbus Blue Jackets sensation Rick Nash and Atlanta Thrashers sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, both first-time All-Stars -- and first and third in the NHL in goals, respectively. And there was Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who no doubt will remind fans of a young Messier when he played in his first NHL All-Star Game. Doan had a solid outing, including a goal that was set up by Lidstrom and another vet, Keith Tkachuk, but he was positively gushing about the play of Nash.

"Rick Nash is as skilled as anyone who's ever come into this league," the young Coyote said. "His composure is unbelievable. He's as good as they get."

Echoing Messier and Doan, another vet said he, too, was impressed with hockey's future.

"They can all play, but they are also solid individuals who care about the game," Modano said, in what appeared to be a mild rebuke of some of the me-generation antics on display in other sports. "They're mostly soft-spoken guys who respect everything about the game and the people who've come before them. I think we're in good hands."

"There's no question the future is bright for this league," said Sakic, arguably one of the greatest the game has seen. "The talent I saw out there was impressive."

And it was young.

Nowadays the old men might have all the money, but whatever the future of the NHL, the young players will have their say.

Sunday was only the start.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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