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NHL All-Stars return to the ice

January 21, 2007|From the Associated Press

DALLAS — The gray Dodge Durango that Joe Sakic got for being MVP of the last NHL All-Star game has thousands and thousands of miles on it by now, and has even been passed on to his dad.

After all, it's been three years.

Forced off the ice by a lockout in 2005 and the Olympics in '06, the league's midseason showcase finally returns Wednesday night. And, like a teenager who comes home after three years in college, a lot has changed.

Sakic, again, provides a good example.

A 12-time All-Star, he heads to Dallas as the elder statesman among honorees. The established stars when he was breaking in are retired and most of his peers still in the league are either not playing at a high level (Eric Lindros, Jeremy Roenick) or are no longer as popular with voters (Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek).

Instead, new faces are taking over. Six of the 12 starters picked by fans are first-time All-Stars, as are 20 of the 42 overall choices. The leading vote-getter was Sidney Crosby, who was 16 and was still in junior-level hockey when the NHL held its last All-Star game in January 2004.

Still only 19, Crosby is the youngest player ever voted in by fans. He's also the youngest player ever to lead the league in scoring, another indication this should be the first of many, many All-Star appearances for the Pittsburgh Penguins star.

"I'm excited, for sure," he said. "A lot of guys there I grew up watching. To get the opportunity to meet and play with them is going to be enjoyable."

Actually, the most enjoyable part might be watching Crosby play on a line with Washington's Alex Ovechkin, who is so good that he beat out Crosby as the league's top rookie last season.

Crosby and Ovechkin already are being touted as the 21st century version of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Those guys, however, weren't All-Star linemates until the tail end of their careers. So this pairing of young stars could be the boost needed for a league still trying to reclaim popularity snuffed by a lockout that wiped out an entire season.

"They are two of the most exciting players in the game and to get an opportunity to watch them on the line it's going to be a lot of fun," Sakic said. "I think both teams will be keeping a close eye on them."

The view might be enjoyed best by Buffalo's Daniel Briere, the third member of their line.

"It's definitely pretty cool," said Briere, who also will enjoy being joined in the starting lineup by Sabres teammates Brian Campbell and Ryan Miller, plus coach Lindy Ruff heading the East.

"Ovechkin and Crosby are the new face of the NHL," Briere said. "A few years ago, all you saw were guys that had been there for a while, dominating the league -- Mario Lemieux, Jagr, Sakic. I think it's fun to see a little bit of new blood now. And it's exciting to be a part of that, to be going there with those guys."

Other changes the league hopes will generate more excitement: Playing in the middle of the week for the first time since 1989 and televising the game on its new cable partner, Versus, a network that three years ago was known as OLN and specialized in hunting and fishing shows. The game will be offered in high-definition, with shots from the "Rail Cam," an electronic eye that zips above the glass on one side of the ice.

Versus analyst Bill Clement noted that because this will be the first All-Star game since the lockout, it's the first "with the players really having a vested interest in the growth of the sport." As a result, he's expecting less of an Ice Capades event and more of a competitive game.

Ruff agreed, adding that having so many first-time All-Stars could result in more checks than usual -- like, say, two or three.

"My anticipation of seeing some of the younger guys play is it's going to be a higher-energy type game," he said. "I don't think it's going to be one of those 14-10, 'You go this way, I go that way.' I think you may see some guys just play all out, which I think would be a good representation for our league."

At least everyone should look good. That's the aim of Reebok, which is using the All-Star events to unveil a new type of sweater. Tighter, lighter and more water resistant, both All-Star teams will wear them. Next season, all 30 uniforms will be cut from the same cloth.

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