From Raleigh, N.C. — There were no new geographical themes to play upon, no Winter Olympics to give the NHL an excuse for cancelling the All-Star game, so the league tried to revive its annual "contest" by determining teams through a world-class fantasy draft.
Again demonstrating that its players' good nature is the NHL's greatest asset, the selection process Friday had enough humor, intrigue and family drama to make for an entertaining evening. The NHL should count itself fortunate if the game, to be played Sunday at the RBC Center, is as enjoyable.
All-Star games in general have become stale, and the NHL's annual effort was worse than most because there's no hitting, and without hitting hockey is a glorified figure skating competition. This format might become a regular event or it might be a one-year wonder, but at least the NHL tried something new, and judging by the reaction of players and fans at the Raleigh Convention Center on Friday the first step was successful.
"I think it played out well," said Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins, the second goalie chosen. "I heard the league is trying to sell this as a way to promote players' personalities. It was a fun experience."
Hometown favorite Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes, captain of Team Staal, didn't pick his brother, Marc, a defenseman for the New York Rangers, until the seventh round. Marc pretended to be crushed. Identical twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin of Vancouver were split for the first time, with Daniel chosen in the third round by Team Staal and Henrik on the next pick by Team Lidstrom.
"But I won the first race," said Henrik, born six minutes before his brother. "Team Lidstrom got the best twin."
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, chosen last of 36 players, was rewarded with a car and a $20,000 donation to charity in his name. Even Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin, who spent most of his time fiddling with his cellphone after being chosen third, was caught up in the moment and snapped a photo of the new Mr. Irrelevant.
"It honestly doesn't matter. I'm just happy to be here," Kessel said. "It's not a big deal."
Chicago winger Patrick Kane, who overslept and missed his planned flight but arrived just in time to serve as an alternate captain of Team Lidstrom, passed on teammate Jonathan Toews until the eighth round. "It's a smart pick but I'm a little disappointed," said Toews, the Blackhawks' captain.
For every split there was a reunion.
Eric Staal, drafting first overall, played to the crowd by choosing Carolina teammate Cam Ward. "I was just the best player available, I guess," Ward joked. Martin St. Louis, assisting Detroit's venerable Nicklas Lidstrom with Team Lidstrom's roster, took Tampa Bay teammate and NHL scoring leader Steven Stamkos second overall. St. Louis will also skate alongside Thomas — his old University of Vermont teammate — and former Lightning teammate Brad Richards, now with Dallas.
The Kings and Ducks joined the party late. Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller, the only Western Conference goalie in the mix, was the final netminder chosen and will wear the blue of Team Lidstrom, which will be coached by Peter Laviolette of the Flyers and Alain Vigneault of the Canucks. "It's really exciting. It's a dream coming true," Hiller said of his first All-Star appearance. "It's a real honor."
Ducks right wing Corey Perry went to Team Staal in the 15th round. "He has pretty good mitts and a nose around the net," Eric Staal noted. Team Staal will be coached by Chicago's Joel Quenneville and Mike Haviland.
Perry appreciated the pick. "It's an honor to be here," he said. "I'm sure you can use the rest but when you get to be part of these things it's something you don't forget."
Kings center Anze Kopitar went to Team Lidstrom in the next pick. He joked that there had been talks of trading picks before the draft but said he enjoyed exploring the new format.
"It's just to get a little bit more attention even before the skills stuff and the game," Kopitar said. "This is definitely a good way to do it."
The overall success will be judged Sunday. But give the NHL credit for trying something new.
"I think it's a cool idea. It adds different elements to the weekend," Eric Staal said. "The way the world is with hockey pools, football pools, baseball pools and doing your fantasy draft, this is kind of a unique way for players to do it on their own and have some fun and add something different to the game."