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Packed house electrified by All-Star practice

by Phil Coffey
MONTREAL -- Over the course of the NHL regular season, team practices tend to be quiet affairs held in small facilities before few, if any, fans.

So, you could excuse the NHL All-Stars and YoungStars Saturday morning for being a little stunned when they took the ice at the Bell Centre for the McDonald's NHL All-Star Open Practice.

To put it mildly, the joint was jumping.

"We skated out there and I mean, I couldn't believe it," New Jersey Devil Zach Parise said. "Not only were they there, they were excited and there was energy in the rink. That's crazy. I don't think you're going to get that in too many cities."

"We might have 20 people at our practices in Philadelphia," Eastern All-Star Jeff Carter said. "Here they have 20,000 fans, cameras, all the reporters. Actually, it was cool to be a part of it."

A packed house of over 21,000 cheered and savored every moment of the day that started with a game of shinny between the NHL mascots, a "battle" that thrilled the kids in the audience no end. Once the mascots, led by Montreal's beloved Youppi took to the stands for more fun, the Western Conference All-Stars took center stage for photos and a light skate that also wowed them.

"Am I surprised as a member of the New York Islanders?" defenseman Mark Streit asked. "Yes. But as a former Montreal Canadien. No. We had open practices here and there was always a big crowd. You know Montreal is always going to do it up big for hockey. Except for it being really, really hot out there for the practice, everything else has been really, really cool."

But as you might expect, the biggest cheers of the morning came when the Eastern Conference All-Stars, led by Canadiens Carey Price, Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek and Alex Kovalev.

That's when a chorus of "Ole!" made its way around the building, further adding to the festive nature of the morning.

"I haven't gotten any memo from the league about no hitting or blocking shots, but I'm sure we'll be briefed here about the etiquette for all-star games," said Canadiens defenseman Mike Komisarek, whose enjoying his first All-Star Weekend. "It's all in good fun and obviously you want to play well and have fun and just to be on the ice with the some of the best players in the world is truly special. It was nice to get out there with the guys and break a little sweat before the competition tonight, but I don't think guys are showing too much of their moves or too much of their skills this morning; they're saving it for tonight."

"I didn't want to miss this," Price said. "This was one thing that I really wanted to do the whole year. When I got hurt, and I thought about missing this game, it was important to me (to play).

"I'm really excited," Price said. "Having the fans behind me pushing me into that No. 1 spot ... I really appreciate the fans, what they did for me. You know, they really beared down when the voting was pretty close, and got me to where I am now."

Price said playing before the home crowd makes it all the more special.

"I think it makes it a lot more fun, having the whole crowd behind you," Price said. "They're going to be behind all the players anyway, but they're going to give us a little extra cheer, I think."

"I feel like I'm in a little bit of Hollywood for sure, and it's really fun," Boston's Marc Savard said. "You see it out there, it's a practice and it's packed and people are already booing us Bruins. It was a lot of fun and it really is amazing how much they love hockey up here."

Savard was expecting a not so warm reception for the All-Star Game.

"We'll get booed for sure," Savard said. "Z might get booed a little more, but we're going to get booed for sure. You don't like it, but it's fun I guess. I definitely think the Bruins got the biggest boos out there. It's fun."

And the Bell Centre wasn't playing host to just the NHL stars of today. Also in attendance to meet and talk with the current stars was a contingent of NHL legends led by Gordie Howe, Johnny Bower, and Canadiens Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey, Guy Lafleur, Dickie Moore, Henri Richard and Serge Savard.

Day-care center -- Colorado Avalanche forward Milan Hejduk looked around the Western Conference dressing room and agreed that for Saturday morning it had become the biggest day-care center in Montreal as virtually every player brought along his kids for the festivities.

"We all brought our kids and it is great for them to see all those great players in one place," Hejduk said.

Hejduk had his 5-year-old twin, Marek and David, in tow. Marek caused a bit of concern for his dad as he approached him with one of the player's mouthpieces and then couldn’t remember where he picked it up. Dad solved that conundrum quickly.

"There's a lot of talent out there," Hejduk said after taking care of family matters "There was some pretty good players out there.

"Today's practice, we were just floating around," Hejduk continued. "We hadn't really warmed up and we didn't want to get hurt or anything, so were just floating around, but it was fun. It'll be interesting to see how it changes tomorrow night."

Special times -- You might think coming to another All-Star Game would get to be old hat for a veteran like Dallas' Mike Modano. But you'd be wrong.

"Every day I get to go on the ice from the time I was a kind until now has been special," Modano said. "It never gets old."

Lucky fan -- One fan decked out in a white Canadiens jersey came away with a great souvenir as Eastern Conference goalie Carey Price flipped him his stick as he left the ice.

"We'll get booed for sure. Z might get booed a little more, but we're going to get booed for sure. You don't like it, but it's fun I guess. I definitely think the Bruins got the biggest boos out there. It's fun."
-- Marc Savard on the reaction from the Montreal crowd

Robidas awestruck -- Dallas Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas was named to the Western Conference All-Star squad as a replacement for Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom. He was a little star-struck Saturday as he sat in the Western Conference dressing room.

"I feel a little out of place," Robidas said. "Here I am, sitting by Scott Niedermayer and he's one of the best defenseman in the game."

Told the Eastern Conference boasts some pretty impressive players too, Robidas really was stunned.

"That's the scary part, you look at those guys like Ovie and Malkin and you realize that you have to go against them. That's not going to much fun.

"I'm just trying to enjoy every moment of it," he said. "I brought my son (Justin, age 5) into the dressing room and, hopefully, he will remember this. I know I will always remember it. And, I'll take lots of pictures."

Well said -- "It was great to see all of the fans here and feel all the excitement," Canadiens goalie Carey Price said. "But the practice for me personally was brutal. All the best shooters in the world, firing at me like it was the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. For a while there I was wondering if I was going to touch the puck."

Feeling the heat -- Bruins All-Star Tim Thomas was hot during the practice, but not by design.

"Oh man, that practice was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be," the good-natured goalie said. "These pants that we have to wear are so hot, I feel like I'm wearing a snowmobile suit."

Thomas also inadvertently tripped Alex Ovechkin during the skate, sending his Eastern Conference teammate crashing into the boards.

"It's going to be interesting facing 'Ovie' in the breakaway challenge," Thomas said. "I just hope I don't hurt myself or hurt him. I actually tripped him once during practice by accident; I can't knock him out because he's on my team, but he's just full of so many moves, it's tough."

Capturing the spirit of the thing -- New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been a cool customer during All-Star Weekend, and that's the product of design.

"I have had a good time and I have tried to relax, too, not take it too seriously," Lundqvist said. "It's fun to meet all the guys, and this is a great place. It's all about hockey. You can tell this is a city where hockey matters. It's fun to be here.

"I hadn't really thought about being here until I got in but it's definitely fun," Lundqvist said. "It's my first time and when you look back on your career it's got to be a good feeling to play in one All-Star Game. Hopefully I'll have a couple more in the future."

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