Forget all the talk about how the NHL All-Star Game is a meaningless event to the players and the game of hockey, because this weekend's festivities in Raleigh aren't about just the actual game, or even the SuperSkills competition. It's about celebrating hockey -- not the actual on-ice stuff, but the personalities of the players and coaches, the passion of the fans, and the relationship those groups have with each other. Like no other sport, hockey and its fans have a bond.
As a Raleigh resident, I can personally attest that the Triangle is excited to host the midseason event. The downtown area is primed to greet guests in the days leading up to the weekend, and the grounds of the RBC Center are transforming to host the on-site events.
So what should you watch for this weekend? Here's a quick check list.
Carolina's Boys. On Wednesday, the NHL announced that Carolina rookie Jeff Skinner has been named as an injury replacement for Sunday's game. He'll join Canes captain Eric Staal, goalie Cam Ward and rookie defenseman Jamie McBain — also added Wednesday as a rookie participant for Saturday's SuperSkills event — in representing the home town team. As a small market team, the Hurricanes don't always get the publicity they deserve, but this weekend should serve as an opportunity for NHL fans to get to know Carolina's stars.
Staal has emerged as the face of the franchise, going from a lanky 18-year-old rookie to a broad-shouldered leader. Ward is a Conn Smythe winner who many outside of the Carolinas probably believe hasn't lived up to that showing in 2006. Don't be fooled by the numbers: Ward is essential to the Hurricanes' success as Staal, and his cool composure has a calming influence on a young team. As for Skinner, you might not find a player who loves playing the game more. But he's also ultra-competitive and wise beyond his years. When the RBC Center goal horn blows for the Canes, Skinner is the first to remove his mouthguard and flash his infectious smile.
No Crosby? No Problem. It's unfortunate that several of the NHL's stars will miss the game because of injury, most notably Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who were both voted in by the fans. But in a way, there's a sense of relief that Crosby’s shadow won't be cast over the weekend.
Crosby deserves all the credit and publicity he gets — not only is he the game's best player, but he's perhaps its best active ambassador — but his presence in nearly every made-for-TV event the NHL puts on (NBC Games of the Week, Winter Classics, commercials, etc.) can cause Sid overload. I think the NHL can survive one weekend without Crosby, and here's to hoping he gets well soon.
TAILGATE! The Caniacs have become famous for their pregame tailgates, especially when they make it to the postseason. During the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, I spied Don Cherry wandered the RBC Center parking lots as he took it all in. The college-like atmosphere is a sight to see, and visiting fans will find that Carolina fans are welcoming and exhibit the definition of Southern hospitality.
For those coming for the first time, try some barbecue and sweet tea.