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Dan's Thought of the Day

by Dan Rusanowsky / San Jose Sharks

The 2015 NHL All-Star Game in Columbus will be remembered as a finesse-filled, high-scoring affair, with the statistics not coming close to resembling an average regular season game.

First, the names of the teams were player-based for the third consecutive season. Team Toews and Team Foligno were selected in a draft that featured a “trade” for the first time ever: Nick Foligno “traded” Phil Kessel to Team Toews for Tyler Seguin in a move that patterned a real-life deal when Kessel was traded by Boston to Toronto in exchange for some draft picks, one of which turned out to be the second overall pick in the 2010 Draft, which wound up being Seguin.

Second, a relaxed and celebratory nature of the show was evident all weekend, right down to the Jonathan Toews comments about how Kessel was among the “most coachable” in the League, which was a friendly slap directed at the real-life comments made on the Madison, Wisconsin native’s coachability.

Third, Team Toews defeated Team Foligno, 17-12, in a finesse-oriented game that featured no penalties, 92 shots between the teams, and where the goaltenders weren’t reaching for ulcer treatment when the puck went into the net. The total of 29 goals was a new All-Star record, and the four goals recorded by John Tavares of Team Toews tied the all-time record held by Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Gartner, and Dany Heatley. The Sharks’ Brent Burns represented his team and his city well, getting into the high 90’s with his heavy shot, and scoring a goal and an assist in the game, including the last goal of the contest late in the third period.

With the World Cup of Hockey returning in 2016 for the first time in 12 years, with the NHL participating in each Winter Olympic Games since 1998, and with the Winter Classic and Stadium Series games reaching the height of popularity, a lot of people have wondered whether the mid-season All-Star game is really serving a purpose any longer. My answer is: “Yes.”

To provide more background for my answer, I’ll draw on personal experience from the two All-Star Games that I have been privileged to attend: the game in San Jose way back in 1997, and another one at Madison Square Garden in New York way, WAY back in 1973.

In the 1970’s, it was a little bit closer to a regular game than perhaps it is now, and the format was a little more traditional, pitting the East vs. the West. Instead of a 17-12 football score, it was a game won by the East, 5-4. There were penalties called in the game, all minors, assessed to Bobby Orr, Gary Bergman, Ken Hodge, and Bill White. With two goals, Pittsburgh’s Greg Polis was named the game’s MVP.

For me, a kid from Connecticut lucky enough to have an uncle who worked for a Manhattan-based company, Exxon, that had tickets available, it was an absolute thrill to be able to go to the game. I had been to two other NHL games to that point, and understood that this game didn’t count in the standings. However, the greatest part of the experience for me was to see so many of the NHL’s top players in person.

These were players that I had heard about while listening to NHL games on the radio. Occasionally, I was able to watch some of them on TV in those pre-cable days. In that game, I got a chance to see Bobby Orr and Brad Park play together on the power play, which was something that couldn’t happen in the regular season and doesn’t really occur in the modern All-Star Game.

For me, while moment-by-moment memories are somewhat faded, here are a few things that stuck with me: I got to see the “MPH Line” of Pit Martin, Jim Pappin, and Dennis Hull play together, as they did normally for the Chicago Blackhawks. I saw Stan Mikita play in person. I was very impressed by the goaltending of LA’s Rogie Vachon, whom I had only heard about but who I gained more respect for after seeing him play acrobatically in person. I even got to see Joey Johnston of the California Golden Seals play in the game, along with some of my other favorites, including Jean Ratelle (NYR), Dave Keon (TOR) and Yvan Cournoyer (MTL).

The entertaining humor in the game was also evident during the introductions. When members of the arch-rival Boston Bruins were announced, the Garden crowd began its high-decibel level of booing, which brought smiles to all of the players, including the Bruins, who had defeated the hometown Rangers in the previous Stanley Cup Final. Phil Esposito was introduced to a chorus of boos, and he playfully shook his fist at the crowd, which brought an even louder decibel level of hostility.

Then, Bobby Orr was introduced, and for the greatest player of his generation, the boos subsided. There were some cheers from the New York fans as Number Four reached the ice. Coming to a stop, Orr’s skate hit a rut on the ice, causing him to trip and fall flat on his face in front of the 16,986 assembled fans. It was probably the only time that Orr ever actually misstepped in his entire NHL career. He made up for it by looking great in the game.

Fast-forward to 1997, and we had the All-Star Game right here in San Jose, and we had the magic of Owen Nolan’s “called shot” on his hat trick, and a truly great weekend that gave an up-close-and-personal look at Silicon Valley to the rest of the hockey world. Masterton Trophy winner Tony Granato was in the starting lineup, which represented a tremendous comeback from a serious brain injury the year before he came to San Jose. The goals were up from 1973, as the East beat the West, 11-7, and Mark Recchi was awarded the MVP in spite of Owen’s memorable performance.

Beyond the game, some of the more memorable moments for me included the NHL Alumni game, where Walt McKechnie skated onto the ice in the old-time CCM Tacks that were painted white by edict of Seals owner Charles O. Finley, the late Fred Glover found some peace and memory behind the bench, and where Mr. Hockey himself, the great Gordie Howe, made an impression on adults and kids all over the city. I also remember Gary “Cobra” Simmons huffing and puffing as he played the game in spite of recovering from pneumonia only a week or so earlier.

There was a great event at the airship hangar in Mountain View that was packed to the gills with people, and postgame, a memorable downtown party had the fans sharing time with the players themselves. I remember thinking that no other game would have something like that happening, but it did, in San Jose, in 1997.

Today, as the hockey world celebrates Wayne Douglas Gretzky’s 54th (!) birthday, we can reflect positively on the evolution of the NHL All-Star Game, and enjoy its place in the pantheon of all of the great events that the League puts on each year.

We have more goals being scored, and less penalties (none this year) being taken. We have flashy uniforms, teams named after players, a fantasy draft, and even trades consummated. With these changes, what we still have is a unique showcase which puts a spotlight on individual NHL cities, and an exhibition emphasizing the truly magnificent skill of the players, not all of whom get as much exposure in person for the fans in attendance. It’s a lot of work for the League and the host city, and it’s still a great, unique event.

Next month, we’ll get some outstanding exposure for Northern California’s support of the sport at the Coors Light Stadium Series game at Levi’s Stadium between the Sharks and the Kings. That’s also going to be a memorable day in the annals of hockey here in the Golden State. I’m looking forward to that experience, and I know that you are, too.

I’m Dan Rusanowsky, for sjsharks.com.

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