Commentary

Embrace All-Star weekend for what it's supposed to be -- fun

Updated: January 27, 2008, 11:26 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- If you read every media account of the happenings in and around All-Star weekend here, you would swear the event was some twisted hybrid of being repeatedly poked in the eye with a sharp object and being trapped in a tiny, airless room listening to an endless tape loop of Joe Sakic interviews.

From hither to yon, media covering the gathering of NHL stars and corporate types savaged the event.

They didn't like the skills competition, hated the new breakaway competition worse, complained that not all the stars were there and then bemoaned the high-scoring, no-hitting game. And, oh yeah, it was cold outside and smoky in the bars.

[+] EnlargeMarc Savard
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesMarc Savard scored the winning goal with 20.9 seconds left in regulation for the Eastern Conference.

So if you read and/or heard most of the reports out of Atlanta, you'd be convinced the NHL's next order of business would be to call off the next year's All-Star weekend in Montreal and save everyone further embarrassment.

But here's the thing -- we're not sure anyone outside the media feels this way at all.

Virtually every seat in Philips Arena was filled to watch the skills competition Saturday night and the downtown arena was filled to capacity Sunday night for the game itself. We have been to many "real" games here, where far, far fewer people show up to watch the hometown Thrashers.

The fans lustily booed Western Conference netminder Chris Osgood (why? who knows.) and Chris Pronger and cheered like crazy hometown heroes Tobias Enstrom, Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk. They booed the referees and went bananas for the breakaway competition that included a panel of judges whom they also booed with relish.

They were on their feet 12 seconds into Sunday's game when Rick Nash set an All-Star Game record with the first goal of the game and were still cheering when former Thrasher Marc Savard scored the winner with 20.9 seconds left to give the Eastern Conference an 8-7 victory.

What do they know that the media doesn't?

Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

Part of the reason for the media's cynicism about the All-Star festivities is natural. We are a cynical bunch in general. We are suspicious of anything that smacks of hucksterism and put-ons and requires us to suspend our disbelief even for a moment, and the All-Star Game demands that.

Part of the cynicism comes from appreciating when the game is played at its highest level. We see Stanley Cup playoffs, Olympics and international competitions, and the All-Star Game and its attendant events have little to do with that.

That probably shouldn't come as any surprise to media attending these games, and yet no matter where the game is played, the same sense of disgust or disinterest permeates the proceedings for many of those covering the event.

The bottom line is that the urgency of regular NHL games played will never be replicated at an All-Star Game. It's not going to happen. No one expects it to, and so we should get over it.

No All-Star Game in any sport comes close in that regard.

Even baseball, whose All-Star contest comes closest in recreating the drama of a "real" game, has pitchers on strict pitch counts and managers determined to get as many bodies into the game as possible. Baseball also has its All-Star puffery with the home-run derby. Why fans care about hitters' ability to swat batting-practice pitches out of the park is beyond us, but they do. Same with the NBA's dunk contest.

But what the media thinks isn't at all relevant here.

The players seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. The fans sure were.

Thousands lined up to get autographs on the "red carpet" to see the players before the skills competition. Thousands were at Saturday's practice, which included a rock concert with teen sensations the Jonas Brothers. There were popular musicians and celebrities. The Hives and Ne-Yo performed Sunday, while other celebrities like Matthew Modine, Alyssa Milano, Garth Brooks and Tom Glavine were at Sunday's game.

The fans ate up every bit of it. Guess they didn't hear about what a crummy event they were attending.

Slap Shots

Good All-Star Weekend
Goalie Rick DiPietro not only got the nod as the Eastern Conference starter when Martin Brodeur withdrew, but he also turned in a first-rate performance. The Isles netminder shut down the West after allowing Nash's goal just 12 seconds in. He led his squad to a 5-1 first-period lead with 12 straight stops, including stellar efforts against Mike Ribeiro, Joe Thornton, Chris Pronger and Corey Perry. DiPietro also tried a long home-run pass and batted a puck out of the air baseball style to a teammate. Cool.

Bad All-Star Weekend
Poor Chris Osgood. The goalie gets invited to his first All-Star Game in 10 years in a town that barely knows him (he played less than two seasons in the Eastern Conference before returning to Detroit) and they boo him like crazy. Gee. Must have been some transplanted Red Wings fans with long memories. Then, Osgood had the misfortune of starting the game and giving up five first-period goals on 16 shots. Thanks for coming out.

"He told me they've always been like that to him. I don't know why," said Tim Thomas, the winning goalie for the Eastern Conference. "I've experienced that when I'm playing for Boston here. They're just a crowd that loves to get on the goalie."

Stuck in Neutral All-Star Weekend
The Western Conference team appeared stuck in neutral for the first 40 minutes with their predisposition to over pass. The team's best line of Thornton, Henrik Sedin and Marian Gaborik was dangerous on almost every shift, but couldn't finish. It looked like the East was going to win in a rout before the West's four-goal outburst over the second and third periods produced some unexpected drama down the stretch.

"You want to win always. It doesn't matter what sport you're playing, you never want to lose," Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell said. "We had to pick it up at the end there."

"It's competitiveness. We're all competitive," added Western Conference captain Jarome Iginla. "We were trying to get some shots, and [looked up] later and it's 50-plus shots. Once you get into that atmosphere ... you could see the young guys were really fired up."

[+] EnlargeIlya Kovalchuk
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty ImagesIlya Kovalchuk was robbed by West goalie Evgeni Nabokov in the second period of Sunday's game.
Our top story lines from All-Star Weekend
1. So, was this the last time Atlanta fans will see Marian Hossa at an All-Star Game in a Thrashers jersey? GM and interim coach Don Waddell told reporters here this weekend he'll take one more run at getting a deal done with Hossa this week. If he can't, he'll have to move to Plan B, which will be trying to move the talented forward by the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Buffalo Sabres fans might have been asking themselves the same question about defenseman Brian Campbell -- and expecting the same answer. Bye, bye. If that's the case, both players acquitted themselves well Sunday. Campbell had a goal and two assists, including a helper on Savard's winner, while Hossa had a goal and an assist.

2. Six degrees of separation? What are the chances Manny Legace and Chris Osgood, best buddies from their early days in Detroit (where both were essentially underappreciated) would end up at the same All-Star Game? Legace, of course, has backstopped the rebuilding Blues back into the playoff hunt, even though they hit the break on a 0-5-2 slide. Osgood has been a revelation in Detroit this season, posting a 20-3-2 record and a league-best 1.87 GAA. Another little layer interconnection at play this weekend was the presence of Osgood's old Islanders teammate Rick DiPietro for whom Osgood acted as a mentor during almost two seasons on Long Island.

3. Save of the weekend might well have been Evgeni Nabokov's glove save on a rising Kovalchuk one-time slap shot late in the second period that kept the Eastern Conference lead at 5-3. Kovalchuk was so flabbergasted that he fell to the ice before picking himself up and embracing Nabokov. "He's Russian, but he's good," Kovalchuk said. Seconds later, Kovalchuk broke in alone and was stymied by a sprawling Nabokov, who later said the glove save was lucky. Nabokov blanked the East during his tour of duty, turning aside all eight shots during the second period. It marked the first shutout (in a period of play) by a goalie at the All-Star Game since Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 20 North American shots for the World team in 2002.

4. In the interests of full disclosure, this author was part of the panel of writers that named Eric Staal the most valuable player of the game. He had two goals and an assist, including a crucial steal on the winning goal with less than 30 seconds left in the game. But there were many who believed Rick Nash, he of the All-Star hat trick, was more worthy. Nash scored 12 seconds in and his third goal, a beautiful backhand goal on a breakaway, tied the game at 5.

Campbell said he understood the selection. "It's good. I would have loved to have won it, too. Anybody would love to, so good for Eric."

As for Staal's plans for the truck that comes with the MVP award, he was thinking about giving it to his parents in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

"I was saying to the guys on the ice, if I do give it to my parents, I would for sure be the favorite of the family for at least a little while," Staal joked, a nod to his three brothers, two of whom play in the NHL.

Will Marc (New York Rangers) and Jordan (Pittsburgh Penguins) be angry?

"I don't know. We have one watching, Marc in the crowd, so maybe he's a little angry," Eric said. "But if they play their cards right, maybe they'll get the keys, but I don't know. It's doubtful. Very doubtful."

5. The hit of the night -- OK, there was only one and it was more fender bender than hit -- belonged to Kovalchuk on Phoenix defenseman Ed Jovanovski.

"Actually, he tried to kill me," Kovalchuk said of the rare display of contact that took place with one minute left in the game. "Nobody stopped, and then all of a sudden, he stops. Yeah, usually one or two body checks during the All-Star Game. So, we got one. I was involved. It's not very good."

Jovanovski said he was simply trying to let Kovalchuk go around him. "I was actually stopping so he could go around me and I can head up the ice the other way, but he decided to go through me."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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