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NHL takes All-Star game home to Montreal

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MONTREAL (AP) -Nothing against Atlanta, or South Florida, or other NHL teams in the Sun Belt, but an All-Star game up north is really unlike any in a nontraditional hockey market.

And the differences are evident before arriving planes touch down on Canadian soil. Instead of seeing multiple baseball diamonds across vast fields below, one can't help but notice kids and adults bundled up on outdoor rinks with a game of shinny in progress.

The Montreal Canadiens are the proud hosts of this year's All-Star festivities that will culminate with the game on Sunday night. Already the owners of a record 24 Stanley Cup titles, hockey's version of the New York Yankees is in the middle of celebrating its 100th season.

Not even temperatures dropping well below zero during a bitterly cold weekend prevented the Bell Centre from being packed to capacity before 10 a.m. Saturday for Eastern and Western Conference practices.

As NBA star Allen Iverson famously said, "We're in here talking about practice. Not a game, we're talking about practice."

"For me it's just special," said Dallas Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas, who began his NHL career with the Canadiens. "Montreal is a team with a lot of history.

"Me being here in Montreal, being a kid from Sherbrooke which is not too far from here, I grew up as a Montreal Canadiens fan. Everything is there to make it a perfect weekend."

Those players who have roots in Montreal or in nearby areas within the province of Quebec, this All-Star game trumps the others. This city hasn't hosted the game since 1993, when it took place just three days after Gary Bettman took over as NHL commissioner.

The local players already had the honor of being picked as an All-Star, but to dress for the game on the rink of the team many of them were raised to love, the feelings are often too strong to put into words.

Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, a Montreal native, almost missed his chance to play in front of dozens of family and friends when a groin injury in November forced him to sit out 24 games. He returned to action just over a week ago and proved he was fit enough to head home for this showcase.

If the game was somewhere else, Luongo likely would have skipped it as fellow banged-up stars such as Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings did.

"It played into it a lot," Luongo said. "I'm sure the fact that I'll be able to play here in my hometown really affected whether I was going to be here or not.

"I didn't know if I would be back healthy playing before the All-Star game. Once I was able to get back playing for the team a week and a half ago, if everything went well I would play in the game."

Alex Kovalev didn't have to travel far, being that he currently stars for the Canadiens. His extra honor, beyond playing front of adoring fans, is to wear the captain's C for the East squad.

It is a distinction that hadn't been bestowed on a Montreal player in the All-Star game since Hall of Famer Larry Robinson, and one Kovalev doesn't even hold for the Canadiens, who are captained by Saku Koivu.

The choice made perfect sense, especially since Kovalev, and Canadiens teammates goalie Carey Price, and defensemen Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek are all in the East starting lineup.

"It's something you'll remember for the rest of your life," Kovalev said. "You've seen so many things about the tradition and the history of this team. It's always great to have an All-Star game in Montreal.

"People are so passionate, compared to other cities, about hockey. There is nothing else really for people to watch. You know this city used to have a baseball team, but hockey has been the main sport for these fans. You can see when there is no hockey around, how much they're waiting for the season to start, or during the regular season how anxious they are to play every game. Every game is like a playoff atmosphere, so that tells you a lot."

The pride of those Quebec natives is not lost.

Even Vincent Lecavalier smiled through a news conference on Friday as he endured question upon question about whether the Tampa Bay Lightning were going to trade the franchise player to the hometown Canadiens.

Lecavalier idolized Montreal Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau and even portrayed him in a movie. So nothing that linked him to the Canadiens this weekend was likely to be upsetting or distracting.

"The history behind the Montreal Canadiens and all the Stanley Cups that they've won (are special)," Lecavalier said. "It's basically like a religion here. Everybody loves the Canadiens. They follow the Canadiens.

"For someone being born here, to play here obviously people add a little bit of pressure - but I think it's a good pressure."

The appeal of Montreal as a hockey backup is not only enjoyable for those from there, but it serves as a source of pride for players from throughout Canada - even those from out west, who might have dreamed at some point of knocking off the mighty Canadiens.

"I have never been a part of an All-Star game in Canada, so to see that excitement up close is special," said Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, who is from Edmonton, Alberta. "There is a rivalry, and being a part of another Canadian team you want to go play the Canadiens.

"Yeah you want to beat them, not just for the two points but also for the Canadian bragging rights."

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