The 2015 NHL All-Star Weekend is being held in Columbus, Ohio, and thousands of hockey fans are filling the downtown streets.
In a city still celebrating the Ohio State Buckeyes’ national football championship, the talk is more about hockey – the Fantasy Draft, Fan Fair and the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday at Nationwide Arena.
If it all sounds familiar, it should. Four years ago, it was Raleigh’s turn.
“There are a lot of similarities between Columbus and Raleigh,” said Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance. “State capitals. Both have major universities downtown. Both big college sports towns.”
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The 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend, in retrospect, meant a lot to Raleigh, Wake County and the Triangle – certainly economically but in terms of regional perception. A “nontraditional hockey market” put on quite a hockey show, from the first Fantasy Draft at Raleigh Convention Center to the All-Star Game at PNC Arena (then RBC Center).
The Carolina Hurricanes were the host NHL team, and Canes forwards Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner and goaltender Cam Ward were All-Stars. Staal and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings were the captains chosen to conduct the player draft, setting up Team Staal vs. Team Lidstrom, and Staal made Ward the first pick.
“The big thing for me was being a big part of the celebration of the game in this area and showing the guys that you compete against (in the NHL) what kind of place this is,” Staal said last week. “The weather was great, the atmosphere was awesome. Just the whole event. The pre-parties, the draft, everything had a good feel.”
Staal was the MVP of the 2008 All-Star Game in Atlanta, an award that earned him a new truck.
“You win a truck, that’s pretty cool,” Staal said. “But the game here, it was great to showcase our city and our fans.”
NHL officials were impressed. The NHL media were impressed. The downtown streets were festive, the Fan Fair attracted thousands, the first Fantasy Draft was a big hit and the All-Star Game was a sellout.
“We were branded as the ‘center of the hockey world’ to a very influential audience, which was great,” Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said Friday. “It showed we can play on the bigger stage. It was something you wish you could bottle up and sprinkle out every other year.”
Skinner was a rookie in 2011, at 18 the youngest ever selected for the All-Star Game. He was treated like a teen rock star that weekend. Long lines formed to get his autograph. Fans chanted his name at the draft, demanding Staal select him and then wildly cheering when he did.
“It was pretty crazy,” Skinner said last week. “The draft was cool. But what really made it special was having it in Raleigh.”
At the arena, Skinner found himself back in the Canes’ locker room, at his usual locker, next to Staal’s. That helped ease the nerves, but around him in the room were such established stars as Rick Nash, Zdeno Chara and Henrik Lundqvist. The year before, he was playing junior hockey.
The competition wasn’t intense. It never is, Staal said, and shouldn’t be Sunday in Columbus.
“Maybe in the last two or three minutes, if it’s close,” Staal said. “It’s just a fun experience. For me, I grew up watching the All-Star Game. It’s a celebration of the game. You get to experience that, having watched it as a kid, then you’re out there and playing the game, doing what you love it’s cool.”
Canes defenseman Justin Faulk was a freshman at Minnesota-Duluth in 2011, playing college hockey. Now 22 and in his fourth NHL season, he’s a first-time All-Star, saying, “It’s a big honor to be selected to play with some of the best players in the league.”
In 2011, Team Lidstrom won the game 11-10. For the NHL it was soon back to business.
“But the perception of Raleigh as a city in handling that kind of event changed,” Dupree said.
While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had long promised the Hurricanes and Raleigh an All-Star Weekend, Dupree said it was the combined effort of the hockey team, the city and county, area business leaders and others, saying, “There were so many partners working together.”
More than 140,000 people attended the All-Star Weekend events in 2011, generating $11.9 million in direct visitor spending.
“It wasn’t like the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Schmitt said. “We had a year and a half to plan for a big party and spread it out throughout the community. We showed we had a lot to offer and a great place to do it.”
Since 2011, Raleigh has hosted the World of Bluegrass festival and secured such events as Ironman 70.3 Raleigh and the Raleigh Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon. PNC Arena hosted the second and third rounds of the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament and will host the first two rounds in 2016.
“You can make a strong case that the success of the All-Star Weekend opened the door for these other events,” Dupree said. “I think there was a lot of skepticism before, like ‘What is the All-Star Weekend doing in Raleigh?’ When everyone left town they were calling it one of the best ever.
“We have used the All-Star Weekend in recruiting other events such as the NCAAs. It was a very important chapter in the success story. That might be the lasting legacy.”