It's been 22 years since the NHL held its first All-Star Game in San Jose. As a reminder of just how long ago that was, the lineup in 1997 included such legends as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and current Pittsburgh Penguins' co-owner Mario Lemieux.
But it was Owen Nolan who stole the spotlight, thrilling the hometown fans by scoring a hat trick. He even called his shot, a la Babe Ruth, on the last one, beating Dominik Hasek. Another inspirational presence at that time was Tony Granato, who was playing again only a year after recovering from brain surgery for a blood clot.
The 2019 All-Star events in San Jose proved to be memorable, as well. NHL All-Star Skills took place on Friday evening. As he was about to compete, Auston Matthews delighted Sharks fans when he pulled off his Leafs jersey, revealing a Patrick Marleau sweater beneath it. Marleau, now with Toronto, remains beloved in San Jose, where he excelled for so many years.
Representatives of the U.S. and Canadian's Women's National Teams gave an impressive demonstrations of their skills, as well. That was a welcome addition. Kendall Coyne Schofield was the first woman ever to be an official competitor, replacing injured Av Nathan MacKinnon in the Fastest Skater contest. She finished less than one second behind repeat winner Connor McDavid's time. Brianna Decker demonstrated the Premier Passing skill and actually beat all the male NHLers handily. Unfortunately, that was not part of the NBC broadcast. Leon Draisaitl (who took three seconds longer that Decker's 1:06) officially won the event.
Other winners included Henrik Lundqvist for Save Streak, topping last year's champ, Marc-Andre Fleury; Johnny Gaudreau in Puck Control; David Pastrnak for Accuracy Shooting; and John Carlson, for Hardest Shot, edging out fan favorite Brent Burns.
It was a fun evening. With Burns' and Joe Pavelski's sons joining them on the ice, there was an easy-going, family atmosphere. And the skills events included several that really challenged the players.
|Sydney Crosby - from Stanley Cup Finals Game #6 at SAP Center in San Jose, CA - June 12, 2019.|
The whole week celebrated the growth of the game. It has enjoyed ever greater popularity and attention in the Bay Area. During the festivities, the Sharks unveiled a new outdoor street hockey rink at Roosevelt Park, San Jose. The Stanley Cup was displayed at City Hall. Hockey buffs of all ages could enjoy a variety of hockey amusement at the Fan Fair.
In his All-Star address, commissioner Gary Bettman, in addition to touting record league revenues, noted Silicon Valley's reputation for tech innovation and announced that beginning next season, the league will employ a cutting-edge puck and player tracking system. Sensors will be placed on the back of shoulder pads and embedded in pucks. This should give fans a closer view inside the game, according to Bettman.
Bettman said, "We think many of our fans -- especially the innovation generations - - millennials and Gen Z -- are going to love this new frontier."
At the main event, Saturday evening's All-Star Game, fans were treated to entertainment galore. For early arrivals, there were the antics of mascots from across the NHL in a mini-game. The Stanford Band fired up the crowd as the evening was about to get underway. Lauren Jauregui of platinum-selling pop band Fifth Harmony gave a vocally acrobatic rendition of the U.S. national anthem and country singer Chad Brownlee delivered a stirring "O Canada." An intermission performance by Grammy-nominated pop star Bebe Rexha held the fans in their seats. Fans roared when Sharks alumni Owen Nolan and Evgeni Nabokov flashed on the giant screen, waving.
During introductions prior to the game, Sharks fans, holding a good-natured grudge, booed John Tavares (presumably for deciding to sign with Toronto instead of San Jose as a UFA this past summer), Penguins Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang (who beat the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final a couple of years ago) and Marc-Andre Fleury (part of that Pens Cup-winning team and the goalie who vanquished the Sharks as a member of the Golden Knights last year). But the loudest, lustiest boos were reserved for representatives of the Sharks' arch rivals in the Pacific Division -- Ducks goalie John Gibson and, especially, rugged Kings D-man Drew Doughty. Doughty said he relished the role of villain and loved playing in San Jose.
Despite having missed games due to injury leading up to the All-Star break, Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson decided to participate in both the skills competition and the three-on-three All-Star game. He stated, "It’s in San Jose. It’s for this organization, this city, this community and this fan base, and I’m looking forward to that. I want to do my part for this weekend to give them back something.”
His Pacific Division squad lost in the opening round, 10-4 to the Central. But Karlsson scored two goals, giving local fans something to cheer about. After Gibson had given up his fifth of seven goals-against in his half of the game, fans booed and a chant of "Ducks Suck" echoed in the upper tiers.
So after the first preliminary game, San Jose's Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns retired to the showers. Though the Sharks fans might not have had a rooting interest after the first contest, they had plenty of dazzling skills to admire throughout the night. The three-on-three format added to the no-checking, little-defense, free-wheeling play. Letang notched a gorgeous backhand goal. And the stick-handling of Crosby and Seth Jones was jaw-droppingly impressive. Late in the evening, for no particular reason, other than loyalty, the fans let out a hearty "Let's Go Sharks," chant.
The Metropolitan Division beat the Atlantic. Then in the championship game, they overcame the Central, 10-5. Crosby and Letang, teamed with the Isles' Mathew Barzal, continued to wow with their moves. Henrik Lundquist was strong in net. On a rare penalty shot, the Central's Devin Dubnyk stopped Seth Jones, who had been nastily tripped. The save elicited a few cries of "Doooooob," from Wild fans in attendance. Fans sporting jerseys from all over the league could be spotted in the sold-out SAP Arena crowd.
Crosby was awarded a new car as the MVP with four goals and four assists over the course of his two mini-games. Thus he became only the sixth NHL player to capture All-Star MVP, Hart Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy honors during his career. Crosby said, "You play in it, you watch as a kid growing up and you see that presentation -- it's pretty cool. I had a lot of fun today. Didn't need to win the car in order to have a good time, but it's certainly fun."
Crosby had actually been ill for days leading up to this and had to bow out of the Super Skills competition. Teammate Kris Letang said, "He was still sick. But he could've had like, 10 goals tonight, I don't know. But that's how special he is."
The young players -- Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Petterrson -- had much of the attention going into the event. But the veterans definitely took care of business on this night.
|Kris Letang - from Stanley Cup Finals Game #6 at SAP Center in San Jose, CA - June 12, 2019.|
A smiling Letang said, "We still have some stuff to prove. We don't want to end up just like watching them. We want to be part of it. But it's great, the young guys have so much speed and skill -- it's fun to watch them."
Many of the league's top scorers are in their early twenties. "The game has changed. Physical play has diminished. Fighting is down. So there's a lot more room out there, a lot more speed," Letang said. "And these guys are all about that. They have tons of speed. We saw that yesterday [during the Skills], the Fastest Skater. And those guys can shoot the puck. It's unreal. So I think that's the reason."
Some of the young players look at Crosby in awe. Letang said, "To see their faces, sitting next to Sid, talking to them, it's probably special. I remember when I met Mario [Lemieux] for the first time, I was like speechless and I was just staring. So it's probably the same for these guys."
Of the booing, Letang understood: "It was based on the one series. But it's fine. It's fun to play against fans who are so committed to their team. It's all good. It's a fun building to play in. The atmosphere is great. The fans are great for their team here. And the building is loud. So I think it's the perfect match for an All-Star game."
Perhaps Letang, Crosby and company will return for another Cup Final in June. He chuckled. "I don't know. The Sharks are playing really well right now. They're a strong team, really balanced. You never know."
Letang was voted into the All-Star game by the fans themselves, in the NHL's "Last Man In" balloting. "It's alway fun to see that people recognize what you do around the league. The fans supported me. And that means a lot."
At the post-game press conference, Erik Karlsson said, regarding lighting the lamp in the losing effort, "It was awesome. I hadn't scored in a while. Obviously it didn't go as we planned, but it was fun. I always enjoy these things and it's nice to be around guys that you usually play against and be in an environment like this. And to share it with these two guys [nodding towards Pavelski and Burns] is something that is always going to be special. I'm extremely happy that I got the opportunity to do this."
Top Shelf asked Karlsson, having played for years in a Canadian market, what impressed him most about the San Jose hockey community. "Oh, a lot. I always knew that the Shark Tank was always a tough building to play in [as an opponent] -- it was always full and loud. But I was surprised about the Bay Area in general, how many sports fans we have... and Sharks fans. That was something I didn't know. I think that this weekend just reiterated that. And so it's been a pleasant surprise."
We've certainly come a long way since the expansion Sharks' Cow Palace days. This event put a spotlight on the prominence of hockey on the local sports scene. The game continues to grow, from youth hockey programs to fan frenzy for the Sharks and their AHL affiliate, the Barracuda.
Joe Pavelski told Top Shelf, regarding the state of the game here. "Man, right when I came in, it's been my 13th year, the Shark Tank's been loud and awesome to play in. The fans have been great.
"I've got a kid playing youth hockey and there's not much available ice time for them. They only skate a couple times a week. And there's a lot of kids on the ice. So there's a good youth movement going on here. Kids are just loving playing the game and we could use more ice. And you know, they play roller hockey and everything here. So there's a good passion for the game."
The Metropolitan Division All-Stars split a one million dollar prize for winning the tournament. But it was the fans who came away the big winners over the course of the NHL All-Star weekend in San Jose.