GATINEAU, Que. -- Across the Ottawa River from Canada's capital, in the Las Vegas of Ottawa, the 2012 NHL All-Stars were divvied up into two teams in a made-for-TV exercise that is supposed to replicate the childhood reverie of players choosing teams by throwing sticks into a pile and having the captains yank them out. Now there weren't any slot machines in the snow banks around the pond and the hold' em was of the clutch-and-grab and not Texas variety, but the fantasy draft is a nod to the past by a league which, judging by the glitzy venue for this confection, likes seeing its name in blinking lights.
In order to implement the fantasy draft, the NHL had to ditch its traditional -- or at least one of its traditional -- formats: East vs. West. The All-Star Game, when it actually was a game and not a little good-natured shinny, originated with the Stanley Cup champion playing a team of stars before it evolved into conference play, then morphed into North America vs. The World (when NHL players started their Olympic participation in 1998) and finally reverted to the conference format when the league again tried to repair what is essentially unfixable by adding a dollop of intrigue to the All-Star weekend.
The result is Sunday you will get to appreciate the hockey stylings of Team Zdeno Chara vs. Team Daniel Alfredsson, the sequel to Team Lidstrom vs. Team Staal magic of the inaugural. That game in Raleigh has no resonance now, but it did manage to produce the most cringe-worthy moment in the history of All-Star games that did not involve Jim Gray interviewing Pete Rose.
If you remember one thing about that Lidstrom-Staal idyll, you remember a squirming Phil Kessel.
Kessel was the final player chosen in 2011, flashing an uncomfortable grin as the draft lurched on. Alex Ovechkin seemed to take particular delight in the conspicuous discomfort of Kessel, who, at least in public, always looks like he would like to crawl into the nearest bunker. Ovechkin snapped pictures of the snubbed Toronto winger, giggling all the while. Kessel had the last laugh, being awarded a car as a consolation prize. This is a much classier gift than a case of Rice-a-Roni, but the whole affair still brought undue attention to a bashful player and the process that is designed to embarrass. The good news: Kessel, having a superb season with the Maple Leafs, went in Round 8 Thursday night to Team Chara, which means he doesn't have to build an extension on his garage.
"It was nice to have my teammate have my back up here," Kessel said, referring to Toronto linemate Joffrey Lupul, Chara's alternate captain, who announced the pick. Not even the chants of "Leafs Suck" from the Ottawa-area fans in the audience could put a damper on the proceedings for Kessel.
In any case Monsieur Irrelevant, Part Deux, as folks here in Quebec say, turned out to be Logan Couture, who has 21 goals and 15 assists for San Jose, numbers that are most relevant in the Western Conference race.
Hockey being hockey, there is an unhealthy fascination with last place. There will be more opinions proffered in the next 10 or so weeks on which teams will be the last to sneak into the playoffs and which will, or should, finish last in the league to enhance its lottery chances rather than which team will win the President's Trophy.
When asked to explain the Who's-No.-38 phenomenon about an hour before Team Chara started the evening by selecting Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, Alfredsson said, "I don't know. I've never been picked last."
Good one. But Alfredsson, maybe the smartest man in hockey, did go on to offer the Gym Class Theory. For once the good kids, people who always have been picked early, are obliged to cool their heels. A sense of self-worth takes a beating, like anyone silly enough to fight Chara. "I think everybody's been in that situation," Alfredsson said. "If it's gym class and some kid's not good in sports (and he goes last), it's kind of embarrassing." Then he added: "There are probably 700 players in the NHL. And they'd love to be the last player chosen in this draft." This is an ineluctable truth, except in the cases of Nicklas Lidstrom and Teemu Selanne, who declined league invitations to participate, and Ovechkin, who, suspended from real hockey by the NHL for two more games because of a dodgy hit, decided to take a pass on fantasy hockey.
Couture outlasted Dallas's Jamie Benn and took the snub, and the accompanying Honda, with uncommon grace. He said that as a younger player -- Couture, a Calder Trophy finalist, made the all-rookie team last season -- he certainly thought it was possible he might have to wait. On stage, he said his phone was blowing up with people wondering what he planned to do with the car.
Maybe he will drag race Kessel.