Commentary

Players' paths to All-Star glory

Updated: January 23, 2009, 8:09 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- You'll forgive Boston Bruins netminder Tim Thomas for getting the feeling that Niklas Backstrom is stalking him around the hockey world.

After they played together years ago in Finland, Backstrom has followed in Thomas' skate prints. After their stint together in Helsinki, Thomas played for a team in the Swedish elite league in Stockholm and Backstrom took over as the starter in Helsinki. When Thomas left Stockholm, Backstrom took his place. Thomas, who had signed with the Bruins, ended up being sent back to Finland and when he left that team, Backstrom took his place there.

"Then he came here to North America and I came a year after him back to the NHL, so I've been following him," Backstrom told ESPN.com on Friday.

"He was following me around for a while," Thomas joked. "I kept waiting for him to show up in Boston."

In some ways, one of the most interesting parts of the All-Star Weekend is tracking just how these players ended up here.

What is it they say about the journey telling the story, not the destination?

Thomas, now taking part in his second straight All-Star Game, toiled in places such as Helsinki, Birmingham, Houston, Hamilton and Stockholm before playing his first NHL game during the 2002-03 season when he was 29.

"Maybe I was playing in Finland, but I was still enjoying myself and still getting paid to play a game I love," Thomas said. "It was frustrating at times when you were younger, thinking that you could do well if given the chance. You're just trying to find that chance."

When Backstrom and Thomas were teammates, Thomas was in his early to mid-20s, while Backstrom was in his late teens. The two employ different styles, yet Backstrom said he closely watched how Thomas approached the game.

"He's a really nice guy, you know," the Minnesota Wild's top netminder said. "Really easy to get along with and it's fun to see him during the practice, or even a game, how mad he gets when he lets in a goal. You learn from that, you see how hard he battles every day in practice.

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"You go out there, you need to hate that puck," Backstrom added. "You don't want to let in goals. Even in practice, you have to fight for the pucks. I saw how hard he worked and our styles are pretty different, but there were a lot of mental things to learn."

  • Stephane Robidas' journey here is circular.

    A few nights ago, the rugged Dallas defenseman noticed co-GM Les Jackson had left him a message and immediately thought he'd been traded.

    "Right away, the GM calls you, it's not a good sign," Robidas said.

    Then, when Robidas called Jackson back and was told he'd been invited as a replacement for Nicklas Lidstrom at the All-Star Game, Robidas thought Jackson was joking. When he found out the invitation was genuine, it didn't take long for Robidas to make up his mind.

    "Are you kidding me? No doubt in my mind, I'll go for sure. No doubt in my mind," Robidas said.

    A native of Sherbrooke, Quebec, Robidas was drafted by the Canadiens in 1995 and spent three seasons in Montreal before finding a home in Dallas, where he has become one of the most popular players in the Stars' dressing room.

    "Just being in an All-Star Game anywhere would be special," Robidas said. "But being in Montreal, where I played my first two years in the NHL, it'll be really, really special. I got in late [Thursday] and there'll be a lot of stuff going on this weekend, but I'm going to really try and enjoy every moment."

    Another Dallas player who is trying to soak all of this in is rookie James Neal, who will take part in the YoungStars Game on Saturday night in a match between top rookies and top second-year players.

    Earlier this season, on the day Neal had arranged to move out of a Dallas hotel and into his own place, he was sent down to the AHL's Manitoba Moose. On the day he was set to move his stuff into a new place in Winnipeg, he was called back up to Dallas and has been there ever since.

  • Sometimes the All-Star journey involves more than a little introspection.

    Anaheim netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere is here even though he acknowledges he has played poorly at times this season. He was pulled from his last start and responded with some stick smashing and skate stomping.

    "It's a two-way frustration, for sure," said Giguere, a former playoff MVP who is a tepid 12-12-4 with a 3.08 GAA. "I think we're frustrated because the team is not playing well and, in general, the team is frustrated. And the more frustrated you get, the worse you play.

    "I'm even more frustrated with the way I've been playing lately. It's just been hard for me," Giguere added. "I feel like I've been practicing the right way, I've been making lots of saves in practice, I've been feeling great this year. The first year in two, three years that I feel so good, no injuries, nothing, knock on wood. Sometimes you don't understand why things go the way that you don't think they should go."

    Giguere said he and Ducks coach Randy Carlyle have no issues despite Carlyle giving Giguere a short leash in recent days.

    "I've already moved on. He coaches to win," Giguere said. "Lately, I haven't given him many reasons to keep me in net or put me in net. I've got to find a way to get out of what I'm going through. I'm not sure what that way is. It's going to come eventually."

  • Now, we know how Jonathan Toews got to the All-Star Game by being one of the top young forwards in the game and he's part of a stunning renaissance in Chicago. But here he is, speaking fluent French to local reporters in Montreal.

    "My mom is from out here, not far from Quebec City and I went to school in French in Winnipeg," Toews said. "It was important. I had to learn French I guess because of my mom. Speak with my mom, but English with my dad, though.

    "[My dad's French is] not bad. I guess could be better. He understands everything, so I can't slip anything past him these days."

    Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.