RALEIGH, N.C. -- If memory serves, the last guy picked in my gym class in No. 3 School in the early 1960s never received $20,000 to donate to his favorite charity and a new bike.
But the fabulous NHL -- Motto: No Star Left Behind -- was only too happy to assuage the last man standing. I'm OK and even You're OK, Phil Kessel, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger who was given the money and a 2011 Honda CR-Z.
Nice ride. In Toronto, they say the trade-in value is two first-round draft choices.
Of course, there is no right field in the NHL All-Star game, no distant pasture in which to hide the last kid picked. Kessel will be skating a regular shift for the blue team, also known as Team Lidstrom, because in the All-Star game lines are rolled as utterly as the fans who pay inflated prices to see a match that, by its inherent nature, can't provide more entertainment than the New Jersey Devils on a middling night.
KWAK: All-Stars address state of NHL
Kessel was a good sport, of course, because unlike Colorado's Paul Stastny, his U.S. Olympic teammate who went to Team Staal with the penultimate selection, he was greased. "I didn't really care [being the last pick]," Kessel said. "I'm just having fun with it. It's an honor to be here. When I was a kid, I never would've dreamed of being here ... I don't care at all. Like it's not a big deal for me. This is fun. We come here just to have a good time, play a game and not worry too much. This is our break, right? We're just here to have a good time."
"Well, somebody had to be last, and getting a car is not a bad deal," observed Zdeno Chara, who was once Kessel's teammate in Boston. "It's part of the business. Somebody has to be first, and somebody has to be last."
Yes, last. The most intriguing aspect of the NHL All-Star fantasy draft is that it accurately mirrored the NHL, a league where almost all the attention is focused at the bottom of the playoff pool and rarely at the top. Understandably eighth-place mania overwhelms the race for the President's Trophy because of the volatile nature of the playoffs. There are 16 golden tickets handed out every April, which is why your eyes reflexively drop to the middle of the standings every morning. After the early-round jibes (goalie Cam Ward, picked first by Carolina teammate Eric Staal, joked he was "the best player available") and curios -- Daniel and Henrik Sedin will play on different teams, which is sort of like separating Minneapolis and St. Paul -- the attention quickly was focused on who would wait the longest. Despite Kessel's grinning bravado, he had to be antsy. If you are of the opinion that embarrassment is the cornerstone of modern American entertainment, then the NHL found a winner.
But amid the boys-being-boys bonhomie of the draft, there was also a palpable sense after an hour or so of what the captains and their alternates really thought of their fellow All-Stars. And it was Kessel who, as a teenager was compared favorably to a contemporary slipped through the cracks as the draft lurched on, falling behind the Loui Erikssons of the NHL All-Star class.
Clearly Nicklas Lidstrom and Staal had a different opinion of Kessel's relative value than Toronto general manager Brian Burke, who in 2009 traded a couple of future first rounders for Kessel, a 35-goal scorer with Boston. The initial Bruins pick from the Kessel deal was Tyler Seguin, the second player drafted last June. Unless the Maple Leafs turn around their season in the final two-plus months, the Bruins should reap another potentially franchise-changing player for the sanguine Kessel, who says he will give the money to a cancer charity and drive the Honda.
The real problem was never the format of the All-Star game, whether it was East vs. West or the North Americans against the Europeans. The problem for the past two decades or so has been the game itself, shinny with only rare glimpses of passion or purpose. (NHL All-Star crowds are the quietest hockey fans on earth, on merit.) If this 90-minute draft exercise was just another moving part of the overheating NHL marketing machine, the draft will be remembered as nothing more than a televised attempt to smear lipstick on this pig. Of course if the draft somehow spurs players to at least put in a couple hours of effort Sunday, then it might have had merit.
"Sometimes you see some of these games and no one wants to be the hero, the guy that just flies around and plays his 'A' game," Lidstrom-ite Jonathan Toews said. "Obviously the skill comes out because there's a lot of talent out there, but this will definitely add to guys to try a little harder and to bring a little more speed, a little more competitiveness."
That's one hope. The other is Kessel is more assertive driving traffic off the ice than he is on it.