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And So It Begins: The NHL All Star Experience in Columbus -- Part I

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The hockey world descend on Columbus for three days celebrating the game, the players, the skill and the passion. All of it wrapped in a bunch of fun. We'll follow it from beginning to end.

8:15 AM -- It All Begins

Early on a Friday morning, and the Arena District is all about the 60th incarnation of the NHL All Star Game.  Media are wandering the streets, in search of  a vital caffeine infusion.  Players and families roam the lobby of the Hyatt, which is the nerve center of the event away from the Arena.  The hotel staff don ASG jackets, the shuttles are decorated with the All Star Game logo.   The Media Credential Office is buzzing, while the Winter Park attractions sit idle, waiting for the throngs that will appear in due course.

No question, this is an event that will put Columbus solidly on the map -- both in hockey circles and beyond.  Any lingering doubts about Columbus as a hockey market should be quickly dispelled after these three days are concluded.  Meanwhile, the image and economic benefits to the community are difficult to overstate.

While the impact of the event is significant, the proceedings themselves are all about fun, entertainment and celebration.  Over the next three days, we'll be covering it all, from the NHL Mascot Showdown, to the NHL Fan Fair, the Winter Partk and the NHL Fantasy Draft.  All of these, of course, lead up to the main events -- the NHL Skills Competition and the NHL All Star Game itself.

It's going to be a busy weekend, so we'll be providing continuous coverage through a Live Blog type of concept.  We'll update this article as the day progresses, incorporating the sights and sounds of the 2015 All Star Experience.  First up -- the unveiling of the NHL All-Star Legacy Treehouse.   Stay tuned, lots more to come.

9:30 AM -- The NHL All Star Legacy Treehouse

One of the better kept secrets may be the fact that Columbus is home to the largest Ronald McDonald House on the planet.  This house, serving Children's Hospital directly across the street, provides a safe haven for children struggling with a host of significant medical issues, as well as their families.  The Columbus Blue Jackets, the Blue Jackets Foundation and the NHL combined to create the Treehouse, which ingeniously converts a three-story staircase into a magical, twisting, hockey-themed fun house that provides necessary diversion and sneaky exercise for the children residing there.  It's features include a frozen "pond", an electronic scoreboard, a wall-mounted "Plinko" game, played with pucks, an interior tube slide and plenty of nooks and crannies for the kids to explore.

The treehouse celebrated its Grand Opening this morning, in an event hosted by Blue Jackets' broadcaster and former player Jody Shelley.  Among the guests of honor were NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Blue Jackets Foundation President Cathy Lyttle, the Blue Jackets' Nick Foligno, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins and Jonathan Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning.  NHL Alumni representatives Andrew Cassels and Jamie Allison also made an appearance.  Here is a portion of Gary Bettman's remarks:

Though this event seems unconnected from the sport, it served as a poignant reminder of the power that professional sports have to do good, and how much good the NHL and its franchises actually do. The sight of so many courageous kids, decked out in All Star gear of all sizes and descriptions, was inspiring. At one point, just as Cathy Lyttle was starting to speak, a boy of about 7, wearing an All Star jersey that hung well below knee level, excused himself, saying "I have to go to surgery." Wow. Not a dry eye in the house. That really says it all.

10:30 AM -- Catching Up With A Former Favorite

Former Blue Jackets center Andrew Cassels was an interested observer at the morning's events, as his wife was very active in the volunteer efforts surrounding Children's Hospital and the Ronal McDonald House.  Cassels looks like he could step back on the ice today.  He was kind enough to provide a bit of insight on the changes he has seen and what he is up to today:

As with many of the former Blue Jackets we spoke with today, it seemed that there was a touch of envy in Cassel's voice, seeing Columbus as the center of the hockey universe, if only for a weekend.

11:30 AM -- The Players Enter The Arena

As mid-day approached, the official NHL Media Day kicked off.  "Media Day" is a bit of a misnomer, actually, as it really amounts to approximately 2.5 hours, during which an assortment of players are trotted out to one of 10 different interview stations, and subjected to the packs of media and quasi-media types for as long as they could tolerate it.  There are only so many ways to ask the same question, and the media found all of them.  Still, the players we spoke with were unfailingly cordial and responsive.  To be sure, there were no real "scoops" obtained today. If you reach All Star status in the NHL, you know what to say -- and more importantly, what not to say.  The All Star Game is not the venue for deep, probing questions, as each of the players is accompanied by a phalanx of PR people, assigned to insure that no unwarranted disclosures are made.  Bear this in mind as we move forward.

Vladimir Tarasenko, appearing in his first All Star Game, was polite to the point of appearing shy.  His mastery of the English language is limited, so he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the proceedings. Still, he was clearly pleased to be part of the festivities, feels "lucky" to be in the hunt for the Rocket RIchard Trophy, and was sorely disappointed that neither Sergei Bobrovsky or Evgeni Malkin were able to participate.  Besides providing an oasis in language familiarity, Tarasenko played in junior level hockey with Bobrovsky, and clearly had an affinity with the Blue Jackets' netminder.

In stark contrast to Tarasenko was his countryman, Alexander Ovechkin, who breezed into the room, looking a bit mussed, but wearing  big smile and carrying a confident stride.  A veteran of such affairs, he quickly responded to the questions posed with sincerity, but little novelty.  Still, his sense of humor kept the assembled throng entertained.  As quickly as he appeared, he was gone.

Former Blue Jacket Jake Voracek shared his podium with linemate Claude Giroux, prompting a series of remarks as to how much they look alike.  On television, the similarity shows, but in person, it becomes striking.  Also striking is the degree to which Voracek has matured over the years, a fact he readily acknowledges.  Here's a bit of what Jake had to say:

Blue Jackets fans are undoubtedly bemoaning the fact that Jake no longer skates Nationwide ice, particularly given his stunning performance this season. But the mature, hardworking Voracek of today is not the same guy that was traded in the forgettable Jeff Carter deal. When asked, even Rick Nash acknowledged that he could understand why Voracek was traded at the time. And that, ladies & gentlemen, is your controversial comment of the day.

In all seriousness, Nash drew a massive crowd at his station, to no one's surprise.  He was soft-spoken and polite, acknowledging the great things in Columbus, and even allowing that he was "over" the fact that he gets booed in Nationwide Arena.  His tone and mannerisms, however, suggested that just maybe he isn't really over it, and may harbor just the teeniest resentment that the community appears ungrateful for what he did.  Still, Nash appears entirely comfortable in his new surroundings in New York,  and with the numbers he is posting this season.

Ryan Johansen was predictably quiet and modest in his remarks, showing appropriate gratitude for the opportunity, and responding to the inevitable jokes about bribing Captain Nick Foligno to get on his team.  Johansen is slowly growing more comfortable in his own skin, and it is starting to show.

One standout among the interviewees was rookie Filip Forsberg of Nashville.  He seemed remarkably at ease for a rookie who was catpulted from the traditional rookie appearance in the Skills Competition to the Main Event this week.  Judge for yourself:

It's clear that Peter Laviolette has put in a system that enables Forsberg -- and the rest of the offense -- to thrive.  Forsberg clearly gets that fact and enjoys the opportunity.  He is quick to praise teammates Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber, and is almost alarmingly mature for his posture in the league.

We saved the best for last with Nick Foligno.  Here's a guy who has had a personl year that is off the charts.  His daughter has returned to health, his play on the ice has been the best of his career, he inked a long term contract that makes him set for life, gets named to the All Star Team in his home city, and is awarded the "C" to boot.  He is the face of the franchise for this All Star Weekend, and his likeness is everywhere you look.  He has had zero time to himself, and one suspects that he would be happy to enter the Witness Protection Program when this is all over.  No matter, he kept the smile, the self-effacing humor and that direct gaze going the entire time.  Enjoy this:

I ask you, can it be long before this guy wears the "C" on his Blue Jackets' sweater?

6:45 PM -- Transition to the Draft

After spending the afternoon communing with the other media, editing video (for which I apologize), writing this piece and planning the logistics of the next two days, it's time to turn full attention to the Fantasy Draft, featuring Foligno vs. Toews.  That will be the subject of a separate post.  Stay tuned.