Will hockey's heart survive the lockout?

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The spirited sell-out crowd at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall was treated to a worthy substitute for the recently cancelled NHL All-Star Game, with the proceeds going to Hurricane Sandy relief funds. (Tom Briglia/Getty Images)

Operation Hat Trick

By Stu Hackel

Once upon a time, some hockey executive -- it might have been Phil Esposito -- plastered a motivational phrase on the wall in his team's dressing room that read, "Turn Every Negative Into A Positive." Well, things can't be much more negative for the NHL than this ongoing, ridiculous lockout and nothing's been more negative during the last few months than the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Yet a group of locked-out players turned both things into a positive on Saturday night in Atlantic City.

To once again see Steven Stamkos slithering through defenses, Daniel Alfredsson making tape-to-tape passes through traffic, Martin Brodeur lofting the puck halfway down the ice, P.K. Subban dropping his shoulder and carrying the puck one-handed deep into the opponent's zone, Simon Gagne breaking free from coverage, linemates Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry reading and reacting to each other's moves, James Neal threatening to score every time he had the puck, and Kimmo Timonen making a perfect outlet pass felt like a reunion with an old friend.

It was called Operation Hat Trick -- a benefit game with proceeds donated to the American Red Cross, the Empire Relief Fund and New Jersey Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund -- and it provided an oasis of actual live hockey played by some of the world's best for the 10,792 parched partisans who wandered in from the dry desert of the labor stalemate. They filled Boardwalk Hall, the huge barrel-roofed building called Convention Hall in the days when it was the focal point of this famed resort's business, and for one night this legendary beach town and its historic gathering place became the center of the hockey universe.

Stars from all over the NHL flew or drove in to stage the game not far from where the calamitous Superstorm made landfall. And the area's fans responded. No hockey game had filled the 83-year old concrete barn since 1933 when another Red Cross benefit between the Rangers and the Eastern League's Atlantic City Seagulls drew 22,157, a game for which food, fuel and clothing donations took the place of paid admission. It was, at the time, the biggest crowd ever to see a hockey game (and here's The New York Times story on that contest).

For what it's worth, the team captained by current Rangers center Brad Richards defeated the one captained by Scott Hartnell of the Flyers, 10-6. Here's Lisa Hillary's postgame report from Comcast Sports Net Philadelphia.

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Had the NHL been operating, this game would not have occurred. The players and the league probably would have found other ways to help out. But the combination of ice being installed for the first of four Albany Devils AHL games at Boardwalk Hall, plus a bunch of idled athletes thirsting for competition and a cause they could embrace made this event happen, the catalysts being Hartnell, Richards, former Flyer Todd Fedoruk, Caesars Atlantic City, and the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. They were the heroes behind the heroes on the ice.

Here's the introductory press conference last Friday in Atlantic City.

The storm itself didn't shut down Atlantic City. On Saturday, it seemed as vibrant as ever, although Sandy's destruction is still being assessed. (Time.com published this statistical breakdown on Monday, four weeks after the storm.) The game's organizers haven't yet said how much they raised -- the goal was $500,000 -- but it has to be a good number if only because, in addition to ticket sales, the lines of fans waiting to buy Operation Hat Trick T-shirts were actually longer than the beer lines. And rocker Sammy Hagar donated $1,000 per goal for the first 10 scored on the evening. That total was assured before the second period ended. The final total will grow because the players' autographed game jerseys are being auctioned (and you can check that out here.)

As much as the game provided material aid from the storm, it also gave psychic relief for the locked out fans and players, who clearly missed each other. The moment Henrik Lundqvist led the blue-shirted "Team Richards" on to the ice for their pregame warmup, the fans let out a cheer -- and then some quickly booed. Orange-shirted Flyers fans dominated the crowd and they weren't going to cheer anyone from New York. They gave their heroes a bigger cheer when the white-and-orange "Team Hartnell" filed out.

The many Rangers fans cheered for their guys as well. So did a smaller number of Devils fans. In truth, a vast array of jerseys were on display. I saw fans sporting Penguins, Bruins, Blackhawks, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Canucks and Team Canada garb, and some real rarities, too -- an NHLPA sweater for one; also the old Eastern League's Philadelphia Firebirds, the ECHL's Boardwalk Bullies. and even a Lokomotiv Yaroslavl sweater -- and they just wanted to see some hockey. They wanted the NHL back and their feelings known.

"I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got a little choked up when you had 11,000 people cheering they want hockey back,” Hartnell said after the game.

Chants of "We Want Hockey" resounded not long after former NHL ref Kerry Fraser dropped the puck for the opening face-off and continued periodically all night, one of the loudest coming right after the evening's attendance was announced:

The first "Fire Bettman!" chants began during warm-ups and the Commissioner was the night's main villain. The hard feelings toward him weren't wasn't unanimous, however. Asked who he blamed for the lockout, Joseph Yoa of Cape May, NJ (the state's southernmost town, a half-hour south of Atlantic City) said, "It's no one's fault. It's just business. They'll figure it out between them." Yoa wore a Flyers jacket, as he and his wife Judith are originally from Philadelphia. Judith said they brought their two sons Tommy, 11, and Nathan, 8, to the game to celebrate the older boy's birthday.

There were some other targets for the fans. Marty Brodeur, playing goal for "Team Hartnell," caught boos from both New York and Philadelphia fans, setting off a strange dynamic in which those cheering for the white team booed and taunted their own netminder. The Penguins' James Neal, who scored four goals against Brodeur, wasn't about to win any popularity contests either among fans of his team's division rivals.

Even more heartily booed was the alleged coach for "Team Richards," Jersey Shore TV star Vinny Guadagnino. The crowd didn't care that he's a native of hard-hit Staten Island. They came to see hockey players and he isn't one. They didn't know what he was doing there and they weren't going to cheer him under any circumstances. (In truth, he was a celebrity figurehead as Philadelphia hockey journalist Al Morganti changed the lines for the blue team. Former Flyer and Penguin Rick Tocchet coached the white team.)

There was a lot to cheer for. Once their early game rustiness wore off, the players' passing became crisp, the shots more true and the skating, which started out pretty frantic, developed a steady rhythm as the teams traded rushes. It wasn't long before magical combinations developed, three-way passing plays that put someone in prime position for a quality shot. Yes, as the 108 total shots indicated, defensive coverage was lax and backchecking was a rarity. No one blocked shots and not one body check was thrown. It was reminiscent of an NHL All-Star Game, lacking the physical intensity of a real league game that makes hockey an unsurpassed spectator sport. But since there won't be an All-Star Game this season, Operation Hat Trick proved to be a better-than-worthy substitute.

So, as expected, it was a game of skill. And no one outplayed Lundqvist, who was the best performer on the ice for either team right from the outset when he made his first big save on a Gagne breakaway in the game's third minute and looking every bit as sharp as he did last season when he won the Vezina Trophy. Facing countless odd-man rushes and a handful of penalty shots in lieu of the offender serving time in the box, Lundqvist stopped 56 of 64 attempts, many of them from right in front as the teams preferred to work the puck down low rather than blast away from the point.

"He told me he was tired during the first period, but he just got stronger" said Fraser, who worked the game with his son-in-law -- former NHL ref Harry Dumas with Fraser's son Ryan and Dumas' father, Harry, Sr. as linesmen. "At one point, Justin Williams put the puck past him after the whistle. I told him, 'That's the only way they're going to beat you tonight.'"

"You'd think he'd have had a little rust in him," Hartnell said afterward."He was in playoff shape. We were talking in the locker room after the first period how the Rangers (ownership) will want to play really bad now because he's on fire."

Team Richards jumped out to a 4-0 lead they never lost, as Brodeur was unable to make the saves that Lundqvist did. He later joked that he surrendered 10 goals because he was wearing Flyers colors. “I am not used to that orange," he told Tim Panaccio of CSNPhilly.com.

Strangely, Lundqvist's recent workouts in Sweden have not included any game action. They've been just him facing shots from one shooter. "Mentally it's been terrible," he admitted, "but technically, it's probably been pretty good. I want to play real games, but it's probably the best feeling I've had in a long time."

The fans agreed. They gave the players a standing ovation in the last minute of play and kept standing and cheering through the postgame handshakes, the teams raising their sticks and returning the fans' applause at center ice, and then gathering for a joint team photo...

...after which Hartnell tossed his stick into the crowd and other players handed theirs more gently over the glass.

This is the kind of open-heartedness that hockey players have always displayed. It's long been part of the fabric of the game. They are the best ambassadors in all of sports and have a selflessness and generosity of spirit not as common among other athletes. They have long been the most accessible to the fans, most visible in their communities, most cooperative with the media. It starts well before they reach the NHL: As they learn to play the game, they also learn the privileged positions they hold aren't somewhere to hide, but a place from which they can effectively extend themselves to others.

No one came to Boardwalk Hall to talk about Hockey Related Revenue, Make Whole provisions or decertification (although the players got an update in the afternoon at Caesars from Don Fehr, who joked to reporters afterward he might have more luck at the gambling tables than he was having at the negotiating table). They came for hockey and to support the recovery.

But a younger generation watching lockout after lockout may arrive at a different notion of what being a pro hockey player means. The NHL's continual civil war could eventually destroy the spirit around the game, making future stars more prone to selfishness and narrowing their perspective. It's not something that those businessmen responsible for the lockout intend as they obsess over their bottom lines at the expense of their forward lines. But it could be an unfortunate result and it would diminish the character of the game's greatest resource.

It hasn't happened yet, though. The game's heart and spirit flourished on Saturday in Atlantic City, this season's only night of NHL hockey. It revealed how the hockey community can conjure up positives amidst so much negativity. That's pretty special.

Here's Bruce's original.

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