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New flashy skills event will take some getting used to for players

1/26/2008 - NHL

ATLANTA -- The new breakaway competition unveiled Saturday night illustrates one of the intrinsic problems the NHL has in trying to elevate its profile, especially among casual fans.

The new format, which featured players trying flashy, innovative moves judged by a celebrity panel, forces players to become the one thing they rarely are -- hotdogs and showboats.

"I think after the first couple of guys go and hopefully get comfortable and see some of the moves, guys will feel more comfortable as it goes on," Western Conference captain Jarome Iginla said before the competition. "Because, like you say, sometimes hockey players don't like to showboat, but this is a good time to watch the young guys."

Having the judges sure did spice things up. Those judges -- former NHLer and longtime broadcaster Bill Clement, former Atlanta Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby, NBA legend Dominique Wilkins and actor Taylor Kitsch -- were tough.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis might want to ask for an inquiry after his attempts were met with scorn by the panel.

"I was a big zero, but 'A' for effort, I guess," St. Louis said. "They should have taken into context the goalie came out almost to the blue line, crowded my space a little bit."

"It's hard for us, but at the same time, it still needs to be done to give back to the fans," Rangers forward Scott Gomez said. "We all know it's a humbling sport. Every guy here, you know the way you're allowed to act in the room. Everyone's like that. But I think it's getting to the time now where they want to say that it's OK. If you're an old-fashioned hockey guy, you're kind of like, 'What's this?' But hey, it's different now."

Our personal favorites were Ryan Getzlaf's backward-through-the-legs shot, even though he was thwarted by Tim Thomas; hometown favorite
Ilya Kovalchuk's on-his-knees attempt, likewise thwarted by Manny Legace; and Alexander Ovechkin's twin attempts at flipping the puck into the air and batting it past Chris Osgood. As far as the judges were concerned, it was moot that neither attempt actually registered as a shot on goal (although Clement did acknowledge he was voting for Ovechkin's new contract).

In the end, the first attempt to replicate the success of the NBA's All-Star slam dunk competition might have been a bit forced; but by next year, who knows what players will come up with to impress the judges.

The absentee ballot?
The cynic in us wants to refer to this weekend's All-Star event as the No-Star event … or the No-Show event, given the number of players who were either voted or named to the rosters but are not here.

Many are not in Atlanta because of injuries. Henrik Zetterberg, Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatley, Sergei Zubov and Paul Stastny are ailing, and their absence can be excused without question.

The two starting goalies as voted by the fans, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, however, both declined in order to spend time with their families. And at least one other star, Toronto's Mats Sundin, made it clear to the NHL's hockey operations group he didn't want to come and was not named to the Eastern Conference team.

The issue is a thorny one for the league and for the NHL Players' Association.

The All-Star weekend is a significant event for the league when it comes to feting sponsors and raising the game's profile, especially in the United States. But no one wants to get into a situation in which players are somehow forced to attend.

"I think it's a fantastic event. It's a platform event for us, but we have to do what we can to make it a premier event, work with the players," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

"[NHLPA executive director] Paul Kelly thinks it's very important, as well, and it's something we're going to talk about as we go forward. The players already have a very long season, and some players have committed themselves to NHL functions and events throughout their entire careers and need a break."

Apart from missing big-name stars at a time when the league is trying to grab some headlines, there is the competitive balance issue. Does it hurt the Western Conference-leading Detroit Red Wings to have Osgood taking part in All-Star events when Luongo is enjoying a break?

Mike Babcock, coach of the Red Wings and the Western Conference All-Star squad, doesn't view it that way.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the athlete," Babcock said. "We have another guy, Nick Lidstrom, who has been 10 times. He would be the easiest guy to say, 'I don't want to come.' But he looks at it as an opportunity to sell our great game. And that is the responsibility of being a great player.

"If you do it right, I think you can make this a lot of fun with your family and enjoy the experience and join the other people and get energized with it as well. Maybe it wasn't the ski trip or the time at the beach you had planned, but I think it's a good opportunity."

San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton is at his fifth All-Star Game and said he never has thought of pulling the plug.

"Most of the All-Stars are here and we enjoy the weekend. If there's a couple of guys that don't want to enjoy the weekend, it's truly up to them. But I think most of the players want to be here and enjoy this kind of weekend.

"It's a fun event for me, so I really do truly enjoy coming."

More games coming?
Contrary to published reports leading up to Saturday's board of governors meeting, the NHL did not vote on a proposed move to an 84-game schedule. Commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday that there was some preliminary discussion of changing the current 82-game slate to 84 and trimming preseason games from a current maximum of nine to five.

At some point, the NHL likely will go to the 84-game schedule, which would allow for more balanced scheduling, especially as it relates to rotating play between divisions in the two conferences.

"This issue is too embryonic to be discussed by the board," Bettman said.

And what about the outdoors?
Despite the tremendous success of the Winter Classic in Buffalo on Jan. 1, Bettman said the league would proceed with great caution moving forward.

"While it was a great event, I think there are things we can do better," Bettman said.
"It's not something we want to overdo."

There definitely will be another outdoor event, and there are many teams that would like to be involved. Still, the league isn't going to rush willy-nilly into having one every season.

Who says Atlanta fans don't know anything about hockey?
Philips Arena was jammed to the rafters for the skills competition Saturday night, and they knew enough to boo Chris Pronger, who plays in Atlanta only once every three seasons. Pronger might be the most-booed player in the NHL. Don't think it bothers him, though.

Speaking of the big Anaheim defenseman, he also might be be the liveliest interview in the league. Asked whether he believed officiating was relaxed a bit to allow for more physical play in the defensive zone, Pronger didn't hesitate.

"You know what, you are right. They are letting us get away with a lot more. I don't like it. I don't like it," Pronger said. "Again, I haven't given much thought to it.

"This is actually the first time I've actually answered this question … we are getting away with more, probably from the top of the circles in respect to the little hooks, quality scoring chances, things of that nature. You're able to limit the elite players, the players that are going to be able to create the bulk of the chances. Which is a good thing. For me. Probably not for those guys."

A first time for everything
Boston netminder Tim Thomas is among 15 first-timers who never expected to be any closer to an All-Star Game than his television remote.

He recalled his first NHL game, which was against Edmonton on "Hockey Night in Canada." After the game, he was interviewed by former NHLer Kelly Hrudey (who happened to be listening in on this scrum in Atlanta), and Thomas was so excited that he got a tape of the interview, then left it on the team bus. Efforts to retrieve the precious memento failed.

How does it feel to be here in Atlanta, sporting an impressive .928 save percentage, tied for tops in the league?

"It's more than a dream come true because I really didn't even dream about it too much because it seemed like it was too far away, too unattainable," said 33-year-old Thomas, who spent much of his early career playing in Finland and the minors. "I was more worried for most of my adult life just making the NHL. But having said that, actually last summer, I said in my mind, 'I'm going to make the little push and see what I can do.'"

Thomas has a bear motif on his mask, including a sign that says "Beware of bears" that is identical to signs found in Canadian national parks. The sign is apropos, given Thomas' interest in hunting.

Last summer, he was bow hunting bear in northern Manitoba and got treed by an unruly black bear.

"It was my second bear hunt. I had a bear that wouldn't come in until after dark, and I had to wait about an hour after dark," Thomas said. "The first night, I shined him with the flashlight and he took off for a little while, then came back. Then, the guy told me, 'Don't shine him with the flashlight, you'll make him mad.

"I was pointing down the tree with a bow and arrow with a knife in my teeth because I was going to shoot with the arrow. First of all, you hope that the bear would come up that side. If he came up the other side, I was just done. And then, I was going to shoot and then grab knife and do one stab. That was my plan if he came up the tree, but fortunately, he never did.

"The trees up there are so small because it's so far north. He was pushing down other trees. They push them down and then jump on them to show their superiority," Thomas said. "He wasn't pushing on my tree, thank goodness. He was pushing down other trees around it."

A match made in our hockey heaven, but …
Here are two things to know about the person who might become the next GM and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

First, if there is one man who was perfect for the job, one with a proven track record as a winner and big enough personality to take on the pressures that come with Toronto, it is Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke.

Second, Burke almost certainly will not take the job.

Ducks owner Henry Samueli would not prevent Burke from leaving if he received an offer; but watch for Burke to sign a contract extension within the next week or so that will keep him in Anaheim for at least the next three to four years.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

First, Burke has a tremendous sense of loyalty (see his acquisitions of Brad May and Todd Bertuzzi and patience regarding the extended absences of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne). Samueli -- and his wife, Susan -- gave Burke an opportunity when he had been out of work after his ouster in Vancouver. Burke will be loath to repay that faith by jumping at the first high-profile offer that comes his way.

Then, there is the issue of how players would view the move, in Anaheim and in Toronto. Burke demands a high level of accountability from his players and staff. To jump ship would impugn his credibility with those he has assembled in Anaheim and those he might pull together in Toronto. How can you ask players and coaches to commit to an organization when you choose not to as GM?

In many ways, it would be a shame not to see Burke take the Toronto job (assuming the Leafs' search would include a knock on Burke's door).

The clash of one of the game's strongest personalities with one of the biggest media markets in sports would have been volatile to say the least.

Assuming Burke stays in Anaheim, the challenge for the search committee headed by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Richard Peddie and Toronto sports lawyer Gordon Kirke will be in finding a GM like Burke.

Don't be surprised if the Leafs actually used Burke as a resource in their search.

Where are they?
There were a couple of raised eyebrows Saturday morning when young Swedes Tobias Enstrom (Thrashers) and Nicklas Backstrom (Capitals) weren't on the ice for the Eastern Conference practice.

But all was explained. More or less.

Backstrom was resting a sore foot -- and, no, it wasn't an injury incurred because he temporarily lost his shoes Friday and had to borrow a pair from a business associate of teammate Alexander Ovechkin. Backstrom was in the lineup for the skills competition, and we're pleased to report that the bag containing his shoes was recovered at the airport.

As for Enstrom, a mix-up in scheduling led him to believe his presence was not needed, so he missed practice but was on hand for the evening's proceedings.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.