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Behind The Skills and Thrills

by Kalen Qually / Winnipeg Jets

All-Star Captains Nick Foligno, Patrick Kane & Drew Doughty huddled around a computer screen on Saturday morning, reviewing their roster and deciding whose skill set gave them an edge over Team Toews in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition later that night. By noon, Dustin Byfuglien would find out his captains planned to deploy him in the hardest shot competition and in the breakaway relay.

That ended the management duties of both Nick Foligno and Jonathan Toews, who over the weekend have been charged with choosing a team from the NHL’s best players and deciding which are the most skilled. Next it was time for the selected squads to hit the ice in the Skills Competition. The players arrived by bus to Nationwide Arena at 4:00 pm and were greeted to legions of fans lining a red carpet entry. Each player stopped to drop a pose, sign autographs for a few dozen young hockey fans, and talk to red carpet correspondents.

The hours leading up to the Skills Competition were typical of a player’s practice or game day routine. They spent time in the room getting loose and making sure their sticks & skates met their specifications. The most glaring difference in this day’s routine was that it was taking place in the Blue Jackets’ dressing room and next to a bunch of other NHL All-Stars. Byfuglien entered the dressing room to find his gear sitting between the stalls of Patrick Kane & Bobby Ryan.

Roughly half-an-hour before on-ice warmups, NHL staff made sure to educate the players on the new skills format in this year’s competition. One of the new events included a relay race where players needed to one-time shots from three different spots in the offensive zone, saucer pucks into much smaller nets, and find their way through a tight puck handling obstacle course. Byfuglien parked between Patrick Kane & Duncan Keith, a couple former teammates from Chicago, while listening to the skills breakdown.

Byfuglien could only offer his support early in the competition as his teammates on Team Foligno jumped out to a convincing lead. They started off by sweeping the fastest skater portion to take a 5-0 head start. The next event was the Breakaway Challenge, in which players needed to mix in creativity with their skill. Ryan Johansen, a hometown favourite, took the win by earning the greatest share of the vote on social media. He won the home favour by wearing an Ohio State Buckeyes football jersey, stealing some spotlight from the NCAA Champions who held a celebration of their own at Ohio Stadium on Saturday. Team Foligno assistant captain Patrick Kane won the accuracy event picking all four targets in the least time. Then each Team Foligno & Toews split points in the new Skills Challenge Relay.

Byfuglien was finally able to stretch his legs with the start of the hardest shot competition. The format this season pitted one player from each team against one another, with an extra point to the overall winner. Byfuglien’s assignment was to match up against the odds on favourite in the event in Nashville’s Shea Weber. The Jets’ defenceman leaned into shots of 95.8 and 97.3 miles per hour, which was impressive but didn’t compare to Weber’s bomb of 108.5.

The final event was the Breakaway Relay where there were no style points involved, just goal or no goal. Byfuglien was a part of the first group of Team Foligno shooters who faced the New York Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak. He made no mistake, deking to the backhand and scoring one of only three goals for Team Foligno in the relay.

Team Foligno didn’t need much in the Breakaway Relay to secure the win over Team Toews, capturing the event by a final score of 25-19. Following the end of the competition, the dressing room was packed tightly with media from numerous NHL markets, along with NHL personnel and PR representatives. It was a shoulder-to-shoulder situation where players squeezed in and out of scrums. Byfuglien found his way to his stall and talked to media about his experience, and specifically whether Paul Maurice would call on him to use that backhand deke in the shootout for the Jets.

One of the questions Byfuglien fielded after the skills event was who he expected to be paired with for the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday. Living in the moment, Byfuglien said he had no idea. He will soon find out as players head to Nationwide Arena at 3:00 pm today in preparation for the main event on Sunday night.

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