By ERIC DUHATSCHEK
Monday, January 30, 2017
CALGARY -- The NHL all-star weekend began Friday with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr gleefully cackling about what it would have been like to play three-on-three hockey when they were in their primes.
Lemieux had it figured this way: Orr could lug the puck up to the offensive blueline, at which point he and Gretzky would get in on the fun. Nobody would check all that hard and a whole bunch of pucks would end up in the net.
It was pretty much how Sunday's all-star game in Los Angeles unfolded, too - a lot of goals, interspersed with a lot of laughs.
Only when the final game got down to short strokes and the prospect of a $1-million (U.S.) shared prize slipping through their fingers did the players start to take it seriously - for a few minutes, anyway. Alex Ovechkin blocked a shot, off the stick of Brent Burns no less.
Gretzky, filling in for John Tortorella as the Metropolitan Division's coach, even won a coaching challenge that turned the final game around and made his side winners over the defending champions from the Pacific Division.
Once upon a time, the all-star game mostly showcased the players. This year, it once again showcased a key rule change - to three-on-three overtime, which was introduced at the start of last year and designed to reduce the number of games decided by shootouts.
It has accomplished that.
Shootouts are down roughly 20 per cent from the decade in which the NHL played four-onfour overtime. It also has had the happy consequence of producing a far more wide-open game.
So much of today's NHL is played in heavy traffic - gridlock of the sort you can see daily on an L.A. freeway at rush hour. Three-on-three is the equivalent of the Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny weekday afternoon - clear sailing.
And great NHL players - the direct descendants of the Orr-toGretzky-to-Lemieux generation - can do great things with the puck if they have the time and space to improvise. It was that way Sunday - 13 goals scored in the first mini-game, 16 in the second and then, when it got a little serious, seven in the decisive game, won by the Metropolitan Division 4-3
Time after time, a player left alone in front of the goaltender found the tiniest of openings to bury a shot, proof that there can be more offence in the game if players are given a chance to create.
Gretzky had the two greatest players of the current generation, Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin, at his disposal. Naturally, he put them on the ice together.
Though Crosby had been selected for the all-star team six times, this was only the second time he'd ever played in the game, and his first since 2007, an eternity ago.
Crosby and Ovechkin generally lacked chemistry, deferring to each other far too often. Luckily, first-timers such as Cam Atkinson and Wayne Simmonds didn't see it that way. Simmonds was selected the game's MVP.
He, and a handful of others, tended to bear down on his chances, where others couldn't, or wouldn't.
For a while now, the all-star game has been a thinly disguised trade-show extravaganza cranked up to another level in the NHL's year-long 100th-anniversary celebration.
Actual celebrities turned out - Jon Hamm to host the unveiling of the greatest players in history, John Legend to provide the musical interlude, Snoop Dogg to schmooze with the players during Saturday's skills competition.
Justin Bieber played in the celebrity game, and it probably wasn't a real surprise that Chris Pronger - who never much liked the pretty boys during his playing career - mushed the Biebs into the boards and then pinned him there for a few extra seconds.
The NHL's player-safety department announced (tongue-incheek) that Pronger would face an in-person hearing for checking from behind. It was like that all weekend - a laugh riot, as long as you didn't expect more than that the way, say, TV commentator Don Cherry, did.
If Nashville, which also featured the John Scott sideshow last year, was a country-music extravaganza, then this year's Hollywood version upped the ante for celebrity content.
Of course, as in all these things, once the glam and glitz moments passed, they eventually had to go on the ice and play some hockey.
Three-on-three may be the most inspired all-star format since the old days when the Stanley Cup champion played the all-star team and the players actually cared about the result, but it will still never be confused with actual NHL competition.
Thankfully, it all gets back to normal Tuesday, when the regular season resumes and the playoff races zoom into high gear. There is a little more than two months to ponder a far more pressing issue - how many (and which) Canadian teams make the playoffs.
Sidney Crosby manoeuvres around Brad Marchand during an all-star weekend match up in Los Angeles on Sunday.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES