RALEIGH -- The thrill of competition never deserts a professional athlete -- even years after their retirement.
It was evident at a stone-silent RBC Center at 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning.
While the rest of the city slept off the opening night of a three-day hockey celebration here at All-Star Weekend, NHL Network announcers Kevin Weekes and Jeremy Roenick had already laced up the skates and were twirling around the RBC ice surface, preparing for a private skills showdown that will be part of the Network's three-hour block of programming before Saturday night's Honda NHL SuperSkills competition (CBC, Versus, RDS, 7-9 p.m.).
Both former players took the competition seriously, giving their all as they went head-to-head in the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater competition, the McDonald's NHL Accuracy Shooting competition, the XM NHL Hardest Shot competition and the brand-new G Series NHL Skill challenge Relay, which are four of the six events in play on Saturday night. The Blackberry NHL Breakaway Challenge and the Discover NHL Elimination Shoot Out are the other two events.
"You can see what the guys are going to go through tonight," Roenick said, trying to catch his breath after the last event of the morning, the Skill Challenge relay. "Fortunately, they are a lot better than us and in a lot better shape than us."
While the bodies may have been faltering, the brains of both Weekes and Roenick were still willing, and each called on their world-class skills to push each other while still having a ton of laughs as they previewed what should be a fun evening showcasing all the skill the NHL has to offer.
"These guys will have a lot of fun with it tonight, trust me," Weekes said when it was all over. "There's so much skill in the League right now. It should be a great showcase tonight."
The competition between the 36-year-old Weekes, a goalie who last played in 2009, and the 41-year-old Roenick, a high-scoring winger who hung the skates up the same year, was intense from the start.
It began with the fastest skater competition and Roenick, a nine-time All-Star participant, used a late push to beat Weekes, who was wearing his white Graf goalie skates for the competition.
"I only lost by two seconds to Jeremy Roenick, an all-star, so I'll take that as a moral victory," Weekes said. "I'll actually take it as a victory."
Then it was on to the accuracy shooting contest. Again, it was J.R. that had the clear advantage, knocking down all four targets before Weekes got to two. At that point, Roenick playfully mocked Weekes by bringing the goalie his goalie stick.
Still, Weekes missed his first five shots with the goalie stick, roofing four over the net and off the Plexiglass before he finally broke the Lower-right target.
"This is more my speed," Weekes said, holding his goalie stick aloft. "This is my tool."
Weekes shouldn't have had a chance in the hardest-shot competition against Roenick, who possessed a laser of a shot during his prime. But, the deck was illegally stacked in favor of the goalie.
Roenick shot first and shanked his first shot wide to the left, actually knocking out the cord to the radar-gun read out.
"That's called a duck-hook drive," Roenick said, laughing sheepishly. "As I approached the puck, I was thinking two things: Don't miss the puck and don't pull my back out."
Roenick did neither, but the first shot was not one for the video-highlight reel. His next two shots were better and he topped out at 83 MPH. Weekes actually reached 73.4 MPH on his first shot and, suddenly, there was a sliver of hope that the goalie could pull off the upset. Then his second shot registered 118. 2 and Weekes was celebrating a shot that would be 12.5 mph better than Zdeno Chara's 2009 record blast.
"The numbers don't lie," Weekes said, gloating.
In this case, though, they did lie as the technicians had switched the readout from miles per hour to kilometers per hour.
"You can't use kilometers, this is America," Roenick countered.
The competition ended with the two players combining to run through the skill relay, which features a one-timer element, a saucer-pass portion, a stick-handling relay and a puck-possession relay before finishing with an accuracy-shooting element.
The newest of the skills competition almost proved to be the undoing of both players as it tested not only each player's skill set, but also their endurance.
"This one will be fun and challenging," Roenick said. "We tried to do it and we almost killed ourselves."
Yet somehow they both survived and skated off the ice chuckling as they took good-natured barbs from some of the actual All-Stars who were arriving for a sparsely attended, low-impact morning skate.
"We're just having a great time," Weekes said. "It's a privilege for me to be a part of this. I never got the chance to play in an All-Star Game, while J.R. played in seven or eight. It's just been a lot of fun and I'm glad I get to be a part of it."