Why young NHL players love the All-Star experience

SAN JOSE — Elias Pettersson sat at his podium, attempting to answer a question about how exciting it was to be at the NHL All-Star Game as a rookie for the Vancouver Canucks. He’d start, then stop, then start, then stop, mindful of the cheers and chanting from the fans in attendance at Media Day on Thursday, and the pulsating music playing during player introductions from that crowd.

It was the first time the NHL attempted to ‘Super Bowl up’ its Media Day, bringing in (mostly Sharks) fans and creating some rock star moments for an event that’s usually held in the hallway of an arena. Objectively, it was a good idea, because anything that connects the fans and this event is a good idea. Aesthetically, it was a half-baked idea, because there clearly wasn’t enough communicated to fans about this happening, judging by the empty seats. Functionally, for people like me, it was a pain in the kiester, because all the ballyhoo made it hard to, you know, do media things on Media Day. But at least fans got to witness the unparalleled thrill of jet-lagged hockey writers asking slightly agitated players about CBA issues, player tracking tech concerns and, in at least two cases, the abrupt firing of their general manager days before the event.

“I’m not going to comment on that here,” said Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, who would in fact comment on the state of the team after Peter Chiarelli’s firing later in his availability. “I want to enjoy the All-Star Game. I understand that you guys have a job to do. But I’ll talk about that later.”

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Enjoying the All-Star Game is something a lot of us wonder about these players. As in, the perception is always that they’d rather be anywhere but at the All-Star Game. This is an idea reinforced by players ducking out due to injury (Sidney Crosby, previously) or fatigue (Alex Ovechkin, currently) to the point where the NHL mandated a one-game suspension for anyone named to the event who cancels on them.

And so there’s been this perception that being named an All-Star is the NHL’s version of jury duty: a civic responsibility that players endure under penalty of law.

Then you talk to someone like Pettersson, 20, and realize how cool this whole circus is to guys that have yet to be jaded by it.

“It’s exciting. A lot of fun, a lot of good players here,” said Pettersson. “I’m looking forward to meeting everyone. Everyone’s here for a reason, because they’re good hockey players. And I’m looking forward to meeting the Swedish players.”

He smiles. “Because sometimes it’s good to talk Swedish.”

Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs was posing for pictures with an anthropomorphic bear in an All-Star jersey while being interviewed by Chinese television. He was told he’s very popular over there.

“I didn’t know that,” he said, with a laugh.

Matthews would seem like the kind of guy that has no interest in All-Star Game shenanigans — which seem to be much more in Mitch Marner‘s lane, to be honest — but he too was excited to be a part of it. Of course, location matters.

“It’s nice to come somewhere warm. I was actually born pretty close to here, so it’s nice to come back. It’s a weekend where you get to spend it with some of the best players in the league, my family, just kind of enjoy the time,” he said.

Matthews is 21. That’s how old Johnny Gaudreau was at his first All-Star Game, and now he’s a bit of a veteran at this. The Calgary Flames star was named to his fifth event this season. Admittedly, it’s something that he’s come to appreciate.

“I didn’t watch it too, too much,” he said of the NHL All-Star Game. “I was a kid in New Jersey. Watched the Flyers. Loved hockey. Always at the rink. As I got older … you always dreamed about playing in the NHL, and then when you made the NHL, your next dream was to play in something like this.”

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Is it a hassle for these guys? For some of them, yes, although the bye weeks built into NHL season have made this three-day detour a little more palatable. (David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, for example, was hanging in Cabo before heading to San Jose.) But in speaking to the All-Stars, at the All-Star Game, you get the sense that they sort of dig it. The chance to hang with peers in a casual setting. The various events to which they can take girlfriends, wives and families on the NHL’s dime. The chance to field some goofy questions amid the perfunctory ones during Media Day.

Someone asks Johnny Gaudreau if he can give a Drew Doughty bobblehead his review.

“Yeah,” said Gaudreau. “I think it sums it up pretty well. He’s a pretty goofy guy.”

As you know, it’s Gritty’s world and we’re just living in it. Which is why his “things to pack for the All-Star Game” tweet was liked over 30,000 times.

Packing for my big All Star trip, tryna keep it to the essentials. Am I missing anything? pic.twitter.com/BolkKa6X8l

– Gritty (@GrittyNHL) January 22, 2019

For the record: “Underwear (the good pair)” is always atop our lists.

Brian Burke and Peter Chiarelli are friends. They’re both Stanley Cup-winning general managers who coasted on that accomplishment, and they’ve both been let go twice by teams. So there’s a kinship and an understanding there, which is why Burke went to bat for Chiarelli’s indefensible record as Oilers GM on Sportsnet:

Brian Burke tries to defend some of Chiarelli’s key moves as Oilers GM. #LetsGoOilers pic.twitter.com/ERk94Txe5L

– NHL Prospects Watcher (@Prospects_Watch) January 24, 2019

This is really a marvel to watch. We’re talking a Cirque du Soleil level of contortion. Adam Larsson is a No. 2 defenseman? The jury’s out on Taylor Hall, after he won the Hart Trophy last season? The Ryan Strome trade is “very poor” but Jordan Eberle “hasn’t turned it up either,” despite 59 even-strength points in the last two seasons and one fewer goal at even strength (25) than Mathew Barzal (26)?

The good news for Peter Chiarelli is that, apparently, he might have a second act on television waiting for him.

The Washington Capitals have always been an epicenter for Jersey Fouls in the Eastern Conference, due to both decades of nihilism and disposable income. The tradition continues:

@wyshynski Do you still collect jersey fouls? these might qualify…cheers! pic.twitter.com/tpEvutorGR

– James J Patterson (@JGoliard) January 23, 2019

We’d put it at around 99 percent that Tom Wilson has called Evgeny Kuznetsov by this name at least once in the Capitals’ locker room. As for the other one … D.C. gotta D.C.

Meanwhile, in Vegas:

.@SethRorabaugh pic.twitter.com/ieQ0gJBlDE

– Vince Laboon (@vincelaboon) January 20, 2019

We like to mention this from time to time: Not a Foul. Wayne Gretzky’s number is retired league-wide. No one else can wear No. 99. Hence, if you want to honor what is, technically, one of your retired players with his name on your sweater, by all means.

Well, except for you, Calgary. That’s just trolling.

The Professional Hockey Writers Association released their midseason awards this week, and as per usual they’re all over the map:

The PHWA midseason award voting. Some of this I agree with, and some of this not so much. But Pettersson, Trotz and Lehner are locks at this point. pic.twitter.com/5bKPQSGekx

– Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) January 24, 2019

The hits: Barry Trotz, John Gibson, Mark Giordano, Brad Treliving, Robin Lehner and Pettersson. Oh, and I like Mattias Ekholm for best defensive defenseman, but wonder if he’s got that honor and his best offensive season, shouldn’t we have him in the Norris conversation?

Postgame analysis and highlight show airing each night throughout the season from Barry Melrose and Linda Cohn. Watch on ESPN+

The misses: Patrice Bergeron is a defensive god who has appeared in just 33 games this season and Aleksander Barkov … I mean, this is a reputation-based vote if there ever was one. By every measure — from his minus-18 to the .894 on-ice save percentage the Panthers have when he’s out there — this has not been a Selke Trophy season for Barkov. But sure, give him the Lady Byng.

Also, I’ll just sit here and wait for all the Connor McDavid stans who think the MVP should be given to a player on non-playoff team to tell me why that doesn’t apply to Patrick Kane, who is 23 points clear of the Blackhawks’ second-leading scorer and is having the best points-per-game season of his NHL career.

Not that I think either of them deserve the Hart if they’re out of the playoffs. Just noting the absurdity of it all.

Big show this week, as Emily and I talk with new Columbus Blue Jackets advisor Marty St. Louis about the next phase of his life, and ESPN NY radio host/former New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro about the rise of the Islanders. All that and Peter Chiarelli firing talk. Stream it here and find it on iTunes here.

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