The snow slide is gone, the hotels are empty and the NHL brass have returned to New York (albeit not without some travel difficulties . . .) By all accounts, the NHL All Star Weekend was a rousing success. The Fantasy Draft was the most entertaining ever -- assisted perhaps by some liquid courage -- with Nick Foligno and Alexander Ovechkin stealing the show. The Skills Competition lived up to the advance billing, both in terms of skill and amusement. Shea Weber came just short of a new record in the hardest shot competition, while Ryan Johansen channeled his inner Braxton Miller and enlisted youthful assistance to take the Breakaway contest. The game itself set records for total goals and goals by one team -- while seemingly played in slow motion. However, after what came before, it almost seemed anticlimactic, even though local boy Ryan Johansen purloined the MVP award -- and car -- thanks to a home-oriented fan vote.
Beyond these marquee events, however, were a bunch of events that served as the "glue" for the entire experience, making the weekend a seamless celebration of the game of hockey and the community itself. Let's look back at some of these other attractions.
All Star 5K
My car thermometer registers 25 degrees as I emerge and head toward Nationwide Arena. A thin sheen of ice coats the sidewalks, as I notice a steady stream of people heading in the same direction. Some are . . .unbelievably. . .donning shorts. Others are in sleek running suits. At least one Hansen brother is in evidence, as is a woman sporting a garbage back over running attire. A kilted gentleman strides by with purpose, and a wide variety of NHL, AHL, CHL & KHL sweaters are in evidence. Fan Fair does not open for two hours, and the Skills Competition is 11 hours hence. So what gives?
The answer is the NHL All Star 5K Race, which attracted an impressive 4,000 participants on a morning more suited to the Winter Classic than a jog around the Arena District. The event debuted at the All-Star Game in Raleigh, North Carolina, drawing an estimated 300 people. Columbus elevated the event to new levels, not only in runner participation, but in the sheer scale of the event. Jody Shelley was one of the hosts of the event. Leo Welsh sang both the Canadian and U.S national anthems. Stinger (Columbus), Carlton (Toronto) and Iceburgh (Pittsburgh) represented the mascot community. Blue Jackets' President Mike Priest was roaming the neighborhood. The plaza was jammed -- and the start of the race was still an hour away.
So, what motivated a crowd this size to brave the chill and icy conditions to run around downtown? Some, obviously, were dedicated runners. However, the vast majority appeared motivated more by the hockey connection than by establishing a personal best in the 5,000 meters. One participant -- an Otterbein University professor who displayed a sartorially mixed metaphor with a Blue Jackets sweatshirt and Montreal Canadiens hat -- perhaps expressed the sentiment best, explaining that he did not have tickets to the events, but that participating in the race enabled him to have a connection with the All Star Game festivities and support the Blue Jackets. That's good stuff.
It may seem like a small thing, but the participation level in this road race made an important statement as to the level of community commitment that exists to the City and the ASG festivities, and just how far Columbus has come in bringing hockey to the forefront.
The 5K Race is an event, but really only a small part of the entire experience. The Columbus Blue Jackets All Star Winter Park is a much broader symbol of the meaningful ways that an event such as the All Star Game can reach out beyond the scope of hockey to the community at large, A cooperative effort between the Blue Jackets, Worthington Industries, Scotts and Huntington Bank, the Winter Park featured an NHL sized out door rink, which was open to the public for skating for several days prior to the event, and attracted crowds non-stop during its open skating sessions. Why not? Skating and skate rental combined cost only $5.00, and the adjacent area included portable heated facilities for the kids, ample food & beverage options, and strategically spaced fire pits to warm the hands.
If $5 was to rich for your tastes, the huge snow slide on Nationwide Boulevard might have been more to your liking. For a mere $2, you could carom down a slide of manufactured snow on an inner tube-type cushion. The ride was steep enough to evoke the periodic scream from some of the teenage female patrons, but was benign enough to be suitable for all ages. Again, the lines were consistent, but manageable, and you could not find a discouraging word about any of these attractions.
On Saturday morning, the Columbus AAA Blue Jackets were facing off against the Cleveland Barons in their version of the Winter Classic, with maybe 100 or so interested spectators occupying the bleachers that ringed the rink. It was a spirited brand of hockey, punctuated by the usual exhortations from overly invested parents. However, it was a scene that made you wonder why this -- or something like it -- could not be a permanent fixture on the winter landscape in Columbus.
NHL Fan Fest
The first word that came to mind when you entered the NHL Fan Fest at the Columbus Convention Center was "massive." For anyone who has attended the annual fan celebrations hosted by the Blue Jackets -- or any other franchise -- think of that event, then multiply it by fifty. You truly needed to see it to comprehend its scope. From Honda vehicles to pucks from the WHA, from the Stanley Cup to peanut butter cups, you can find it there. The full family of NHL trophies were on display, with the longest line -- by far -- populated by those who wanted their photo taken with Lord Stanley's Cup. The hall included a dizzying array of interactive games, hockey skills contests and simulations. The stage used for the Fantasy Draft was a popular attraction. Every manner of memorabilia or souvenir could be acquired -- for a price of course -- including various items promoted as collectibles. Value is in the eye of the beholder, and some of these items would warrant a closer inspection.
The wonderful thing abut the NHL Fan Fest was the steady, steady stream of visitors that poured into the venue all weekend long. All ages, from as many different locations as you could conceive (judging by the sweaters) -- and virtually all of them smiling, wide-eyed and engaged. Again, it's easy to dismiss functions like this as cliche, but the NHL and the Convention Center did a fantastic job of putting this together, and estimates of total attendance ranged from 35,000 to 50,000 patrons.
Gary Bettman "State of the NHL" Press Conference
While not a public event, the Commissioner's annual "State of the NHL" press conference after the Board of Governor's meeting is traditionally a time of significant announcements. In keeping with the warm, fuzzy mood of the entire weekend, nary a cross word crossed anybody's lips during the session, which fetatured formal announcement of the 2016 Winter Classic (Boston vs. Montreal at Gillette Stadium), and Stadium Series (Minnesota hosting Chicago, Colorado hosting Detroit). Once again, the majority (4 of 6) participants in the outdoor spectacles are from Original SIx venues.
Bettman was effusive in his praise of Columbus as the host of the All Star Game, as a franchise and as a hockey city. Such stuff is fairly standard to be sure, but the Commissioner went farther than he needed to, and that can only have a positive influence on others considering Columbus for significant events in the future.
As expected, Bettman also announced the resumption of the World Cup of Hockey for September 2016 in Toronto. Eight teams (Canada, USA, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, an All-Europe squad and a North American "young guns" team will fight it out over a two week stretch, with a best two of three final. It was emphasized that this had no impact on the NHL participation in future Olympics, which was portrayed as an issue "yet to be discussed." Donald Fehr was in attendance , and confirmed that the World Cup was very much a joint NHL/NHLPA endeavor, and would be governed by NHL rules. It is a credit to the All Star Game that Fehr & Bettman can appear on the same stage with neither clenching jaw or grinding teeth.
Finally, Bettman made assurances as to the health of the game (playing to 96% of capacity for the first half), and the fact that the current disparity between the Candian and U.S dollars would not cause the salary cap to "fall off the cliff". He was forced to field no uncomfortable questions, and it seemed that a combination of Midwest and Canadian politeness had overcome the nerve center of hockey for a day -- which is never a bad thing.
"Red Army" Screening
Some of the media attended a private screening of the documentary "Red Army" at the Arena Grand Theatre in the afternoon. I mention this for two reasons. First , is the fact that the director, Gabe Polsky, found it important enough to attend the event in person, even though the film was premiering in Toronto and at the Sundance Film Festival on the same day. Secondly, this is a truly remarkable film that any serious hockey fan -- or fan of history, for that matter -- should make it a point to see.
The film documents the Soviet Red Army hockey team, primarily through the eyes of Slava Fetisov, perhaps the single best defenseman -- aside from Bobby Orr -- ever to play the game. Many might argue he was better than Orr. Be that as it may, Polsky does a masterful job of conveying the tortuous journey that the Red Army players had to endure under mentors Tarasov (good) and Tikhanov (not so good). Much of the film was shot in Russia, and Posky does a great job of extracting the raw emotions from Fetisov and the others. You alternately want to punch or hug Fetisov, but end up feeling a sense of tremendous respect for him and the path he was compelled to tread.
For those of us who lived through some of the darkest days of the Cold War, the themes of this film strike home . . .hard. However, its message is not limited by generation. It transcends the time from Stalin to Putin, and tracks the lives involved to the present day. It shows the transfiguration and metamorphosis of nations and individuals, shows how we got where we are today, and asks the very relevant question of whether things have really changed that much. That it's all done through the vehicle of hockey makes it just a bit more special.
Again, without the All Star Game, this doesn't happen at this time in this place. When it is more widely available, put this one on your "Must See" list.
The Red Carpet
The All Star Weekend's nod to Hollywood comes in the form of the Red Carpet Walk the players and coaches take upon their arrival at the arena prior to the Skill's competition. Here, the red carpet entrance was situated at the main entrance to the Ice Haus, with the carpet itself occupying the rink area. Fans -- mostly youngsters -- crowded the bleachers and the adjoining standing areas, poised to gain autographs from their favorite players. The ever-present media swarm was poised for a continuous series of 30-second interviews with the players as they proceeded across the carpet.
If there was a single event where some of the players seemed to be less-than-enthused participants, this was it. They did their duty, signed the autographs, did the interviews and managed to keep smiles on their faces, but some approached it with clenched teeth. It is a contrived event, and after already spent much of the day in media scrums, this was a bit of fluff that perhaps went over the top a bit. Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen kept the high spirits that they maintained for the whole weekend, and Ovechkin spent a long time providing signatures and interviews. Most of the others seemed to find their way through the procession as quickly as could be diplomatically tolerated, and you really couldn't blame them.
The sartorial highlight (?) of the event had to be Brent Burns, who sported a vibrant plaid suit beneath his full beard, wild hair and constant smile. Think the GEICO cavemen wrapped in wallpaper. . . Patrik Elias sported a suit that could only be characterized as electric blue. Really . . . electric . . . blue . . . Still, this was for the fans, and the majority of the players seemed to take it in that spirit. I suspect, however, that if the players got to vote on a single event to be axed from the agenda, this would be it.
The NHL Mascot Challenge
Mascots are for kids, of course, but the fact that all thirty of the NHL Mascots were in attendance added to the celebratory atmosphere, and delighted the youngsters who were present for the events. The mascots also participated in a two-day "athletic" competition, grouped into teams by conference, culminating in a hockey game (played in full mascot regalia), on the main ice just before the Skills Competition.
Is this another bit of fluff? Sure, but it is just another piece of the entertainment puzzle. The hockey game was actually quite entertaining, with the Eastern Conference team winning the game and the overall competition. Stinger scored a hat trick and was named the MVP, and displayed some real skating ability, as well as a relatively wicked wrister. Some of these mascots had some real ability, and managing to play some semblance of hockey while sporting outfits not geared for athletic prowess was fairly impressive in its own right.
Wrapping It Up
From Children's Hospital to the All Star Game, from the 5K to the Skills, and from the Snow Slide to the Fantasy Draft, the entire weekend was a non-stop salute to hockey and Columbus. I spoke with dozens of media and fans from all over the U.S. and Canada over the course of three days, and they were uniform in their praise of the event, the city and the arena. Most had never been here, and most of them were surprised at the cosmopolitan offerings and the vivacity of the hockey interest shown.
In terms of execution, there really was little room for improvement. There were some unfortunate audio system issues during the Skills Competition, and perhaps a bit more snow might have added to the festive atmosphere, but that's about it. Ironically, my lone personal gripe involved the pace of the All Star Game itself. I get the no hitting. I get the no penalties. But, as a quid pro quo for surrendering those attributes, it would be nice to see the game played more quickly, where the skill can really be featured. Just a thought . . .
Columbus and the Blue Jackets could not have had two better ambassadors than Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen. They were available to the media and the public, recognized their responsibilities, yet maintained that necessary irreverent attitude and tongue-in-cheek approach that is essential to this event. The post event press conferences the two players held on Friday and Saturday were entertainment shows in and of themselves.
So, after years of waiting, Columbus, the Blue Jackets, the Convention & Visitors Bureau and everyone else who had a hand in bringing the spectacle to fruition should be really, really proud. It was an outstanding event, executed flawlessly and provided terrific entertainment and visibility for the entire community. The dividends will be earned for years to come, and Columbus has cemented its position as a true hockey town.
It will be a long time before this event returns, so savor the memory. It's a good one.