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THE NHL : All-Star Game Penalty Box Offers Much More Than Empty Feelings

January 22, 1992|STEVE SPRINGER

It finally happened. Two NHL squads played a full 60 minutes, scored 16 goals and didn't get whistled for a single penalty.

Not one.

The penalty box looked like the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2.

OK, so it was the league's All-Star game, a time when the offense shines, the defense disappears and the only checks are those written by the ticket buyers.

Admittedly, it's a lot different when there is nothing at stake. It's easy for a defenseman to let a guy skate by untouched, puck on his stick, when he is not taking the defenseman's hopes of a Stanley Cup with him.

Nor is anyone advocating boarding up the penalty boxes and turning hockey into a noncontact sport. Frankly, Saturday's All-Star game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia was boring at times because it was devoid of the tension and excitement created by a hard-hitting game.

No, penalty-free games are not the object.

Just fight-free games.

Having shown that two squads can coexist on a regulation-size rink for an hour without killing each other, the NHL should be able to find a happy medium between Saturday's flashy skating extravaganza and those nights when it becomes Wrestlemania.

In its finest moments, Saturday's game showed off the incredible athletic skills required to star in the NHL. Wayne Gretzky's pass through the legs of defenseman Paul Coffey to an onrushing Brett Hull for a picture-perfect goal was as spectacular as any scoring play in any sport.

Retain that, add the element of tight-checking defense and you have the perfect balance.

Just don't add the goons.

Come to think of it, they weren't invited Saturday.

Maybe that was the difference.

Add all-star leftovers:

--One man's opinion: As part of the All-Star package produced by the Philadelphia Daily News, sportswriter Ray Didinger picked his top five NHL dynasties.

His choices in order of excellence: Montreal Canadiens, 1955-60; Canadiens, 1975-79; New York Islanders, 1979-83; Detroit Red Wings, 1950-55, and Edmonton Oilers, 1983-90.

--One man's farewell: King defenseman Larry Robinson, playing in his 20th and final season in the NHL, appeared in his 10th All-Star game Saturday.

The 40-year-old Robinson used the opportunity to put his name in the record book by contributing an assist. It was his ninth in All-Star competition, tying Gordie Howe's record, which was collected over 23 games. Ray Bourque of the Boston Bruins also got his ninth career All-Star assist Saturday in his 11th game.

"I didn't look at this game any differently," Robinson said of his final All-Star appearance and impending retirement. "I have no disappointments (in a 20-year career), no hard feelings. Besides, with the way the Kings are going, I have a lot of other things to worry about besides this being my last (All-Star) game."

--Skate's on the other foot: Hull may be the league's leading goal scorer, but the St. Louis Blue wing said that playing on a line with the Kings' Gretzky, the game's all-time leading point producer, was a new experience.

"When I hear that the young guys on our team might be intimidated by playing with me," Hull told reporters, "I say, 'Nah, they're not.'

"But I have to admit, playing with 99 (Gretzky's number) is a little intimidating. . . . There's nothing to adapt to. Just get ready and get open."

--The Hull truth, and everything but: Last year's Hart Trophy winner fielded all sorts of questions during All-Star weekend, but, being the nice guy he is, he tried to avoid controversy as deftly as he does opposing checkers.

Although he began play Tuesday night with 47 goals in 46 games, he shrugged off talk that he might challenge Gretzky's record of 92 goals in a season.

"I don't think so," Hull said. "I got 86 last season and it's hard to believe I could get more."

Asked if he agrees with Gretzky's stand against fighting in hockey, Hull went into neutral gear.

"I've got good friends making a good living doing that," he said. "I hate to see them out of work. But there must be some way to limit it."

Noncommittal? Hull was just warming up for his answer when asked about the demand of teammate Adam Oates that St. Louis management either sweeten his contract or lose him.

"I don't support his actions," Hull said, "but I support him. I'm caught in a very tough situation. I think he's worth every cent he's asking for, but I also agree with the owner's position. They're both right, and they're both wrong."

Talk about skating down the middle.

--Staying in character: An All-Star party at the Franklin Institute included actors as hosts, portraying patriotic figures from the Revolutionary War.

The Thomas Jefferson character, asked his impressions of Gretzky, replied: "Gretzky? Sounds like a good Polish family. Are they immigrants to the New World?"

--Staying in character II--One loud, All-Star spectator upheld another tradition--the tough, demanding Philly fan.

Martha Johnson, widow of former Pittsburgh Penguin coach Bob Johnson, was given the honor of dropping the first puck to begin the All-Star game.

Poised to do so, she held the puck above the ice for a moment while exchanging greetings with Gretzky.

"Hey, lady," an impatient fan yelled from the upper reaches of the Spectrum, "did you ever hear of gravity?"

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