There is only one AHL city that routines welcomes more than 10,000 fans into its arena and only one franchise with 11 Calder Cup banners hanging from the rafters. That is why Hershey, Pa., home of the two-time defending Calder Cup champions and the franchise en route to posting the best attendance in the league for the fifth straight season, is where the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic will conclude with the All-Star Game on Monday night at Giant Center.
The celebration got under way Sunday afternoon with the 2011 Reese's AHL Skills Competition, and a sold-out arena welcomed a showcase for the league's top players.
"It is such a great hockey town and there is so much history here that to bring an event like this here means a lot to the fans and a lot to the city in general," Hershey Bears forward Andrew Gordon said. "When you put 10,500 people in here for a skills competition in the minors, I think that speaks volumes for the caliber of people that are in this town and how much they love the game."
"It is such a great hockey town and there is so much history here that to bring an event like this here means a lot to the fans and a lot to the city in general. When you put 10,500 people in here for a skills competition in the minors, I think that speaks volumes for the caliber of people that are in this town and how much they love the game." -- Bears forward Andrew Gordon
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, a former Hershey bench boss, is in town for the weekend and will be the keynote speaker at the 2011 American Hockey League Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Ceremony on Monday.
The game will feature several top prospects like Holtby and Gordon. A couple of defensemen to watch are John Moore, a first-round pick by Columbus in the 2009 Entry Draft, Brendan Smith, a first-round choice by Detroit in 2007, and Viatcheslav Voynov, a second-rounder for Los Angeles in 2009 who won the fastest skater competition Sunday afternoon. That trio of rearguards makes up one-fourth of the 12 first- and second-round draft picks who will participate in the game.
"It is great. You are selecting the best players from the second-best league in the country, or in North America for that matter," Gordon said. "That is going to be a pretty good talent pool. A lot of the guys are high draft picks and young guys that are proving themselves and establishing themselves as professionals, and big things are ahead. It is great to be nominated and brought into this atmosphere with so many great players and in a situation to showcase yourself."
While the four current Bears will all receive raucous ovations from the crowd, one of the guys on the Western Conference team will also be serenaded by the fans at Giant Center. Alexandre Giroux scored 153 goals in the previous two seasons combined for Hershey, including 29 in 43 postseason contests.
After joining the Edmonton organization in the offseason, Giroux has 25 goals for Oklahoma City and will be the captain of the West squad.
"That's going to be really special for me," Giroux said. "I played four years there and we won two Cups. Going back as a captain will be something special. I am really excited and proud to be picked for that event. I'm going to enjoy it as much as I can and see all the guys that I played with in the past and try to put on a good show.
"I didn't really think about being a captain, but I definitely wanted to be one of the players picked for the game. A lot of the guys like to go to Mexico or someplace warm during the break, but this year I definitely wanted to be there with it being in Hershey. It is going to be a real special weekend for me and it should be great for the league."
Giroux was the AHL MVP two seasons ago when he scored 60 goals in the regular season and added 15 more in the Calder Cup Playoffs. He also broke Brett Hull's league record for most consecutive games with at least one goal. The guy who set him up on many of those goals was Aucoin, who took home league MVP honors last season.
"Yeah, that's going to feel a little funny to use the visitors' locker room again, but I will be happy to see the banner from winning the Cup last year," Giroux said. "I'll also be happy to see Keith Aucoin since he's been such a big part of what I've done the past couple years. I'm going to go to lunch with him and it will be great to catch up with him."
The younger players in the league are under constant pressure to perform. They rarely know the specifics, but there is always someone watching -- whether it is a key talent evaluator from their own organization or someone else's franchise who could be monitoring with interest.
This is one weekend where guys like Holtby and Gordon can relax a little -- even if they are playing in front of the hometown fans.
"The beauty of this weekend as a player is it the one weekend out of the year where you can play with absolutely no pressure," Gordon said. "I did the target-shooting contest today and if I didn't hit one, we didn't drop in the standings or miss the playoffs or anything. We are just here for fun. Obviously I wanted to make the crowd proud of me in front of the Bears' fans, but at the same time if things didn't go my way no one was going to hold it against me. Those two Calder Cups trump a skills competition any day."