By Brian LeBlanc
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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Thirteen-plus years after the franchise moved to North Carolina, ten years after a local radio DJ spent four days on the roof of the arena to bring the event to town, and nine months after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stood on stage before the team's season finale to announce it, the NHL's best have come to the RBC Center for the 58th NHL All-Star Game.
Just typing those words is a little surreal.
It's been a long road to this point, but it looks like the wait was worth it. All weekend, national media, players, team staff and fans have all been raving about the weekend, from the opening of the Fan Fair at the downtown convention center on Friday afternoon all the way through the tailgating (in no short supply, not to mention the beautiful weather) going on in the arena parking lot for the last two days - some of it nonstop.
They bill this as a celebration of hockey, but it's been more a celebration of Raleigh as a hockey market. To put it in religious terms, if the '02 Final was the Canes' baptism, the '06 Final was first Communion, and the 2011 All-Star Game is Confirmation - for the team, for the decision to move here in 1997, and for the market as a whole.
Last night's Super Skills competition, won by the such-as-it-is home team, Team Staal, was a great marketing tool for the league. It was a record-setting night, as evidenced by Zdeno Chara's 105.9 mph blast in the Hardest Shot competition, and it was a coming out party for the Canes' young superstar, Justin Bieb...um, Jeff Skinner, whose jersey Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban donned in the breakaway competition and immediately earned one of the loudest ovations of the night.
Today, things get down to business. Expect lots of scoring, very little backchecking and goaltenders under siege for the better part of three hours. At the end of the night, expect at least one team to put up numbers normally only accumulated in video games (the last All-Star Game ended 12-11, in overtime).
And expect a lot of memories, as a long-delayed promise finally comes to pass and the Hurricanes and their fans show why this market is never questioned as an NHL market anymore.
Pregame: I know there's not supposed to be cheering or emotions or anything in the press box. Too bad. For anyone who's been here for a long time, what just happened was indicative of what I meant by this market never being questioned. A short skit at center ice with some local youth hockey players involved the players picking sticks up off the ice to form their pickup teams. And when the kids picked up the sticks of Hurricanes legends Rod Brind'Amour and Ron Francis, who skated out to center ice, the roof of the building blew off in a way I haven't seen since the day the Canes won the Stanley Cup. Not embarrassed to admit it gave me goosebumps.
1st Intermission: OK, so live blogging just isn't going to work today. A little too fast-paced for that, but we'll recap after each period. The teams are tied at 4 after one, after Team Staal jumped out to a quick lead with four goals in the first six minutes. Team Lidstrom battled back, beating Cam Ward for four goals of their own after the midway point of the period. Jeff Skinner spent the first period on a line with Patrik Elias and Paul Stastny, and while both 26's got on the board Skinner was held scoreless and, in fact, took the least amount of ice time (3:36) of anyone on either team. In case you had forgotten, given all the hoopla surrounding him, Skinner is still a rookie - something that hasn't exactly escaped the attention of Joel Quenneville.
2nd Intermission: Just like the first period, Team Staal jumped out to an early multi-goal lead, then Team Lidstrom fought back and actually took the lead for the first time in the game, heading to the intermission up 7-6. The goalies, especially Team Lidstrom goalie Jonas Hiller, stood on their head for long stretches (at least, by the standards of the All-Star Game) and Hiller denied Jeff Skinner on a breakaway, thereby instantly making him public enemy number one. Also of interest: Alex Ovechkin refuses to shoot the puck for some strange reason. Not sure why, but it's been noticed by just about everyone in the press box. Also, Jeff Skinner has actually taken more ice time than some other players after playing what seemed like half of the second period. Whoever sets him up for a goal will have 18,000 new best friends.
Postgame: Team Lidstrom's lead held up through the third period, and they won 11-10 despite two third-period goals from hometown hero Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner's earning an assist on a Kris Letang goal, drawing a loud cheer from the partisan crowd. The Colorado Avalanche's Matt Duchene earned the first penalty shot in NHL history, when Alex Ovechkin threw his stick at Duchene to thwart a breakaway (for the record, Duchene didn't convert). Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks earned MVP honors with a three-point night.
But the story of the last two days isn't what happened in the three hours on the ice Sunday afternoon. It's everything that went on before the game, and anyone who questions Raleigh as a hockey market after this weekend deserves the same confused look as those who disparage the likes of San Jose or Washington. There's plenty of things that the NHL did wrong in the mid-'90s. Moving a team to North Carolina, it can now be said without question, was not one of them.
Click for postgame audio from Alex Ovechkin, Marc Staal, a press conference with Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner, and MVP Patrick Sharp.
We'll be back in a more normal atmosphere on Tuesday, when the Canes take to the ice to face the Boston Bruins. In all likelihood, Zdeno Chara will go from being one of the surprising fan favorites of this weekend back to being a target of catcalls. After this weekend, though, it'll almost be refreshing to hear.
I'm going to bed now.