Players embrace weekend's fun theme

Staff WriterJanuary 30, 2011 

— It's been clear since Friday night's draft that anything goes during this All-Star weekend. When Cam Ward got the call Saturday afternoon asking him if he'd be willing to become one of the first goalies to compete in the fastest-skater competition, how could he say no?

"Nobody else wanted to do it but Tim Thomas," the Carolina Hurricanes goalie said. "So I said 'Hey, it's the home crowd, I'll just have fun with it and see what happens.' "

And so out they went, in the spirit of the thing, fully encumbered in their gear, to lumber their way around the ice during Saturday's SuperSkills competition.

The NHL has been trying for years to figure out how to get the goalies more involved in the pre-All-Star festivities; this certainly fit the bill. Of course, it helped that the host team's goalie was a willing participant, but the NHL has done a good job of giving the home fans plenty to cheer about this weekend - and man, did they ever when Jeff Skinner was introduced.

Who knows what this will mean tomorrow, because finding ways to make the All-Star Game compelling is the toughest task of all, but if the run-up to today's big event is any indication, it certainly bodes well.

The official list of skills competitors already had been distributed, but Patrick Sharp and Keith Yandle willingly gave up their chance to be declared the NHL's fastest skater for a chance to see the hockey equivalent of a pair of garbage trucks racing the Daytona 500.

Like any good race at Daytona, this one included "The Big One" - Thomas blew a tire and took a tumble behind the net on the first turn. He got up to make a race of it but couldn't catch Ward, to the obvious delight of the partisan audience.

"That was fun to watch," fellow goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "You don't get to see that too often."

Somewhere, someone will say that having two goalies compete in the fastest-skater event makes a mockery of the thing, because it just wouldn't be the NHL if someone didn't complain. And you have to figure Jim Rutherford and Paul Maurice watched through clenched teeth, fighting back visions of their franchise goalie pulling his groin.

Forget about it. The goalie race was the best thing to happen to the skills competition since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin brought props to the shootout contest in 2009. If you can't have fun with an All-Star skills competition, what's the point of having one?

Really, that's become the theme of the weekend: Just have fun with it. Brendan Shanahan set the mood when he figured the All-Stars might as well pick their own teams, and the NHL picked the right guys to do it. Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom have been gracious captains and good sports, willingly doing everything the league has asked of them.

Following their example, others have bought into it. Phil Kessel took his last-pick status with cheerful equanimity Friday, Ward and Thomas were willing to get out there and race, and P.K. Subban accepted Dan Boyle's challenge to wear Skinner's jersey while competing in the breakaway challenge Saturday, a playful nod to the 18-year-old's sudden and somewhat overwhelming celebrity.

Skinner's omnipresent smile may end up the enduring image of a weekend where everyone seemed determined to have fun and was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen - even if that meant sending out the slowest fastest-skater competitors anyone had ever seen., or 919-829-8947

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