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THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND: 2008 NHL All-Star Game: Hot Time in Atlanta (Post Civil War)

01/30/2008 9:53 AM

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2008 NHL All-Star Game: Hot Time in Atlanta (Post Civil War)

By Chad Huebner

It’s a dead time in sports, and you know what that means: It’s time for the NHL All-Star Game.

I mean, really, the weekend before the Super Bowl is most sincerely dead, unless you’re a basketball fan. ESPN was okay with the Winter X Games, but CBS only had the Miss America Pageant and NBC was showing the Men’s Figure Skating Championships (for NBC, this feels like a consolation prize since they can’t broadcast the NHL All-Star Game, even though the game would get more exposure in the U.S. if it was on NBC, and the NHL wonders why it’s still the least popular sports league, aside from the MLS and WNBA, of course).

But I didn’t even have the NHL All-Star Game to keep me entertained, because I was in an area where they don’t carry Versus (though I did plan for this and recorded the game so I’d have something to write about this week). Just heard Mike “Doc” Emrick announce that Versus will be the home of the NHL through 2011, which ticked me off to no end. I have to put up with three more years of limited game coverage (only two nights a week, and mostly East Coast games that start at 6 or 6:30pm my time) and having the midpoint game of the season on a network that only reaches 11 million homes? Did I mention that the NHL wonders why it’s the least popular sports league in America?

And is the game being held in Montreal? No (not until next year).
Any Canadian city? No.
How about Buffalo? No.
Chicago? No.
Detroit? No.
Minnesota? No.
Colorado? New York? St. Louis?
No, no and No. It’s in Atlanta.
What? Why there?

Probably a good question, if you didn’t know that a hockey team resides there. But the Thrashers have been around for nearly a decade (always makes me feel old referring to things that started in 1999 and are now “nearly a decade old”, like “The Matrix”, or Britney Spears’ career), and I guess enough fans like them that they’re going to stay, and not do the most sensible thing and move to Winnipeg or Quebec in an attempt to balance out the abandoning by the NHL of those two mad hockey cities.

In fact, this is Atlanta’s second go around with an NHL franchise. Back in 1972 (or The Year I Was Born as I loudly proclaim with herald trumpets), the NHL wanted to add two teams, one to each division, East and West. The New York Islanders were added to the East, while the Atlanta Flames were added to the West (made sense in the MLB for many years, right?), just to balance out the number of teams.

So yes, Atlanta was only admitted to the league so the NHL will have an even number of clubs. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of your town when that happens.

Anyway, the Flames lasted in Atlanta for eight years before-surprise, surprise-financial constraints forced them out of that hockey crazed city and into a more sensible one, Calgary, Alberta. The rest is history, which included three Stanley Cup Finals appearances and two championships (1989 and 2004).

But in the eight years the Flames were in Atlanta, compared to the eight seasons the Thrashers have competed in the same city, the Flames were statistically better than their modern day counterparts, which must be a shock to all the fans that jumped on the Thrashers’ bandwagon after they drafted Ilya Kovalchuk. Here’s a comparison between the two Atlanta teams:

 Flames Thrashers
Won-Loss-Tie Records 268-260-108 204-286-45
Playoff Appearances 6 1
Non-Losing Seasons 6 (consecutive) 2 (consecutive)

Bit of a shocker, huh? Granted, the Flames made the playoffs at a time where even the Mighty Ducks of Section 5 could’ve probably made the postseason, before Emilio Estevez had anything to do with that team, but otherwise, they were pretty good. Then again, the Thrashers are on a roll, and have had two straight winning seasons going into this season, where the Southeast Division could be won by a juvie team from Venezuela.

But Atlanta is the venue for this All-Star Game, and in honor of the event, I kept a running diary of the proceedings, accompanied by some pizza from Sarpino’s, a local pizza chain in the Northwest Suburbs. Sarpino’s is known for three things: 1) The lameness of its tomato sauce. 2) The unbelievable variety of toppings to cover up the fact the tomato sauce is so lame (I’ll bet I could ask for baby ostrich heads if I wanted to. 3) The unbelievable hours they’re open. The particular place I called is open from 9am-3am during the week, 9am-4am during the weekend. That’s right, you can have pizza 18-19 hours a day. You could start the day at 9am with a pizza, continue through the day and well into the night, take a 5-6 hour pizza-induced coma, and then start all over again the next day. And weigh 900 lbs by the end of the month.

I decided to work out before doing all of this, because I figured I was going to blow my diet anyway, why not make it a reward? I’ll tell ya, a Green Olive-Feta Cheese-Turkey-Banana Pepper Pizza never tasted so good. And no, I’m not pregnant.

And well before the game even started, Doc said probably the funniest thing I’ve heard in a hockey game in a long time, when, in reference to the six goalies each seeing a period of work: “They’re going to see a lot of rubber.”

I probably could’ve used the same line to describe condom vendors at the Sex Convention in Vegas.

Pregame music is being provided by The Hives. You know, that group that wears matching boarding school outfits from the 60s? I didn’t know them either, until they did the “Tick, tick, tick, boom.” line in their signature song. I could’ve come up with something like that!

Both East and West reserves skate out together. East wears blue, West wears red. Am I the only one who misses the days of the Campbell and Wales Conferences, and those orange and black unis? They looked like practice jerseys for the Flyers.

Saw Duncan Keith, the lone Blackhawk representative. Certainly deserving of a spot, but I think Patrick Sharp should have been considered. I mean, he’s the leading goal scorer on the club, he’s having a career year (even though he was brought in as an extra warm body from Philly) and is amazing on the power play.

They just introduced the coaches of the East side: John Paddock of the Ottawa Senators and Don Waddell of the Thrashers. Waddell looks like a Jacques Demers wanna-be, while is it me, or could even a tse-tse fly coach the Sens these days? They were once the jokes of the league, now it seems they easily win 40-50 games a year, coast to a first seed, only to get bounced out of the playoffs along the way.

Meanwhile, the West coaches are Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings and Ron Wilson of the Anaheim Ducks. Yeah, I’m sure that duo’s going to gel for one game. I’m surprised Wilson doesn’t have Babcock in a headlock over last season’s Conference Final.

They’re showing all the players, and it occurs to me none of these guys would be mistaken for playing any other sport. They either sport the “long-tousled hair with the clean-shaven baby face” look or the “shaved my head nearly bald, but I have five o’clock shadow” look. This is actually an improvement over the 90s hockey look, which was nothing but mullets, achy-breaky, Bill Ray Cyrus mullets.

Smeone named Kathleen Edwards does the Canadian National Anthem, but does half of it in French. That’d be like taking our National Anthem and doing half of the song in German.

And for our National Anthem, do we get some washed-up American Idol drop-out? No. How about a bubblegum pop artist on the decline? Not even close, it’s the Atlanta Boys Choir. I’d thought Atlanta would just dig up some half-baked country and western duo at the very least.

Having the goalies miked seems to be a bad thing. Rick DiPietro is miked up, and you can barely understand what he’s saying through the mask, he can’t really hear what Doc and Eddie Olcyzk are asking him, and he gets easily distracted in giving up a goal just 15 seconds into the game to Rick Nash, the fastest goal scored in an All-Star Game. Glad this innovation hasn’t been used in real games yet.

Little more than a minute later, Eric Staal scores his first All-Star Game goal, evening up the score. At this rate, the final score will be something like 57-56.

Keith gets interviewed during the game. First Blackhawks defenseman to play in the ASG since Chelly. Yes, the Chicago defense has been that bad for that long.

More talk with DiPietro: “Mummmplhehehheebhehrrrgghhh”

Now they’re talking to Garth Brooks. See, he could’ve done the National Anthem!

Nearly five minutes pass between goals, this latest one scored by Andrei Markhov of the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens actually have non-Quebecois players on their roster? Sacre-bleu!

It’s been pointed out that there have been five straight ASGs without a penalty called. Okay, I can understand why the players don’t want this game to be physical, but not even a single penalty? There was one point where DiPietro was tangled up behind the net with Anaheim’s Corey Perry, and ten times out of ten in a regular season game, a penalty would have been called. Ridiculous.

(Really, don’t you just wish/thirst for an all-out brawl? There was a time when the NHL wasn’t a love fest for the players. They hated each other’s guts, fostered by playing each other numerous times during the season, especially during the Original Six era. A mere All-Star Game wouldn’t slow them down. Gordie Howe would be blazing with the stick and elbows no matter what.)

Alexander the Eight nets his second career ASG goal. The East gets another with five minutes left in the first period. And nary a forearm shiver in sight from the West.

Again, I know the ASG doesn’t mean squat, and the players would rather fall down than try and play all out, but Ed Jovanoski just waves at the puck with his stick like he really doesn’t care what happens. That’s just lazy.

Looks like Alex the Eight is going to be the MVP of this one, scoring his second of the game. Without Sid the Kid, Alex can certainly make an excellent case for most exciting player in the league.

A minute before the end of the first, Doc and Eddie talk to DiPietro again. More “Mmmtmrmmulphghlgh.”

End of one, East 5, West 1. You know what’s worse than a high-scoring, no-physical play All-Star Game? One that turns into a blowout.

Before the second period, both teams line up the way they did before the National Anthems. Only this time, it’s to honor Willie O’Ree who, fifty years ago, became the first player of color to play in the NHL. He’s to hockey what Buck O’Neil is to baseball, but more underrated.

We have to go nearly half of the second before we get another goal, Nash’s second of the game. I thought this game would be 12-10 by this time, and yes, I feel a little disappointed. All-Star Games are for outrageous goal totals. Just look at some of the shootouts in the 80s.

Oops, we might actually have a good game here. Scott “I don’t have to play a full season anymore” Niedermayer bangs one home from the slot, and now it’s 5-3 East over the West.

If there isn’t that much going on in an ASG, such as this one, then there’s always the “hey, the guy playing for the host city has to score” mission. We almost had this taken care of, as Kovalchuk intercepted a pass and had a big breakaway with less than a minute in the period. But Evgeni Nabokov anticipated the low show and easily enveloped the puck. Still, it’s a bit of a better game at 5-3 instead of 5-1.

Gee, I could be the John Madden of hockey.

I thought Doc’s “rubber” comment before the game could have been the biggest Unintentional Comedic Moment of these proceedings, and then I saw rapper Ne-Yo performing a halftime show on the ice without skates. He and the dance crew are wearing special shoes with thick cleats on them. Aside from the guy being named Ne-Yo (I guess Yo-Yo would have been too blunt), dancing on the ice sans skates has to be the topper so far. I can’t wait for Garth Brooks to waddle out to center ice and perform “Thunder Road” in mukluks.

Oh, wait a second, Doc and Eddie are interviewing the Most Useless Commissioner in Sports, Gary Bettman. This has to top Ne-Yo, right?

Wrong. No questions about why hockey has the worst TV contract in sports. Nothing about the decreased levels in scoring since the lockout, even though the league apparently took steps to increase scoring. Just one speculative question by Eddie about a European division in the NHL in the foreseeable future. Gary indicated that playing a game or two in Europe is all the NHL wants to do right now, so in other words, a snowball has a better chance in hell.

During this soft-questioned interview, the West ties up the game, one of the goals by Nash (Keith gets the assist, yippee!), giving him a hat-trick, the 15th in ASG history. No team has ever come from a four-goal deficit to win an All-Star Game.

Well, that was short lived, as the East go on top again, thanks to a nifty tic-tac-toe play between Scott Gomez and the Thrashers Marian Hossa. Okay, so we took care of a hometown guy getting a goal, we thought it would be a different hometown guy.

But the game gets tied by Dion “I Just Can’t Get” Phaneuf. Or is that “Enough’s” Phaneuf? I’m sure both have been used 10 billion times by Calgary papers by now.

Oooh, Marian Gaborik (too many Marians in hockey) sizzles one past Tim Thomas to give the West their first lead of the game. I guess someone does give a damn about this game.

But the East are getting the better give-and-go goals of the game, this time Alex the Eight feeding Staal for his second tally tonight. With seven minutes to go we might actually have a 15-14 score yet.

A minute to go in the game, and could we have OT? This has turned out to be a pretty good game. Kovalchuk, Staal and Bill Campbell come down the ice for East, some nifty passing, but oh noooo! Campbell just missed pulling the trigger on the game-winning goal.

But Campbell recovers, feeds Boston’s Marc Savard in the slot, and Savard slots it home with just 20 seconds left. And the crowd goes wild! No, really, they do. They like a good, close game as much as anyone.

(I always wondered if Marc Savard gets the same question posed to him every day of his life: “Are you related to Denny Savard?” I’m sure there are other Savards in the league, but none get as much exposure as Marc does with the Boston Bruins. After a while, instead of having a vein pop out on the middle of his forehead, wouldn’t Marc be better off to say “Yes, he’s my older brother.” and move on? Am I the only one that wonders about this useless crap?)

The West pull Manny Legace in favor of an extra attacker, but after a good save by Thomas, the East wins 8-7. The game means nothing, and we’re sure to forget who the ASG MVP is a year from now (in this case, it’s Eric Staal of the hockey-playing Staal brothers, probably second only to the Sutter brothers in terms of notoriety), but for once, amidst a pretty bleak weekend in sports terms, we were treated to an exciting hockey game in one of the least likely of hockey towns.

And yes, the goalies did indeed see a lot of rubber.

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