Monday, January 31, 2011

NHL All Star Game: It's a Celebration!

It was a blur of a weekend in Raleigh that came to an end at once too soon and at the same time just in time.  Perhaps it was the five hour drive from Charleston to Raleigh that made it drag on and wore me down but just as at the Winter Classic it was done too soon, even through exhausted eyes.


Driving in Friday and taking a nap, I made it in to the Fan Fair at the Raleigh Convention Center just in time to catch the start of the All Star Fantasy Draft.  There's some kerfluffle about the fact that it's a "fantasy draft" when there's actually going to be a game played but it's the NHL's Super Stars playing in an exhibition game.  Fantasy Draft worked just fine.

While the path to the stage was packed with a few hundred people, they were wise to project the draft on screens throughout the Convention Center and broadcast it over the speakers, allowing you to take in the draft while exploring the vendors and games that the various companies (Bauer, Nike, Time Warner, Bridgestone, XM) offered.  The lines were long so I opted out of taking part in just about anything.  Instead I wandered around taking in the vibe of the building.

All in all it was a buzz.  A positive buzz.  Between the massive crowd inside and the street fair outside, the town was embracing the NHL and made the entire weekend an absolute party.  They know that for a long weekend the eyes of a nation of fans was on them and they wanted to deliver.  They did, with gusto.

I made three trips to the Fan Fair and each time it was absolutely packed.  While you saw a smattering of various jerseys from around the world of hockey I noticed something interesting: It was predominantly Carolina Hurricanes.  This meant that the local people were coming out in droves for this event and loving it.  Sure enough, every single media person I talked to remarked endlessly about how smart and passionate the fans in the Raleigh area were for their team.  Bravo to you, Raleigh and Canes fans, you likely sold some naysayers that Southern hockey can work.

Panorama of Fan Fest

The NHL has had three big events (soon four) in the Winter Classic, All Star Game, Heritage Classic, and Stanley Cup Finals.  While I was at the Winter Classic and the All Star Game, two big events for the NHL, the All Star Game had an entirely different feel to it than the Classic.  The Classic had a stately event feel to it.  The All Star Game?  No air of importance or grandeur.  Just one big party.

Grab a beer, wander around the streets of Raleigh.  Talk with the person you run into about hockey.  Who is that walking up the sidewalk?  It's Jonathan Toews!  Let's go into the hotel and grab a beer.  Buy one for Roenick too since he's at the bar.  Tomorrow we'll check out the tailgating before the game.  All true stories, all of which happened.  There was even sledding!

The actual events had their ups and downs.  The Skills Competition had it's moments.  Seeing Daniel Sedin go 4-for-4 in the accuracy shooting, watching Zdeno Chara blast a shot that nearly met 106 mph, the way that the Carolina fans adopted Marc Staal as one of their own, everyone laughing at the video of Phil Kessel being drafted last, Marc-Andre Fleury truly stealing the shoot out portion with his jumping jacks.  All stand out.  Unfortunately the relay portion of the Skills Competition really killed any momentum they had from the Fastest Skater and Hardest Shot.  I was glad I was there but if it was about two events shorter it would have been perfect.

In the end, though, this event wasn't about the All Star Game.  It was an escape.  It was a get away from a long season.  That applies to not just the players, who seemed to enjoy the extra curricular activities as much as, or in some cases more than, the reason for being there: hockey. 

Raleigh played the perfect host for the event.  They threw a party like few other places can.  They held the perfect Carolina party.  Lots of entertainment, food (so much barbecue), and the libations flowed.  When the time came to be fans, they blew the roof off of RBC Center.  They drew nothing but praise from those who had been at All Star Games in the past and first timers like myself.

A packed RBC Center
 Perhaps it was the new format that gave it some new life.  Perhaps it was the true southern hospitality.  Maybe it was just that everyone was there to unload.  I think it was a little bit of all of the above, mixed in with some pulled pork, sweet tea, and corn hole.

The All Star Game is likely pretty boring to watch on TV and I can easily see that.  It's like that in all four major sports groups (did anyone really care about the near 100 points score in the Pro Bowl? Seriously?).  What the All Star Game is about more than anything, despite the appearances, is the experience.  From Friday to Sunday, Raleigh gave one hell of a performance as it played host to the NHL and it's fans.  I only hope that we didn't leave too much of a mess and that they'll have us back for a game of Flip Cup or Beer Pong at their tailgate come summer time.
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