Underneath the hijinks, NHL skills competition brings plenty of flair
NASHVILLE — At its most soulful and personable moments, Saturday's 2016 NHL All-Star Skills Competition was about Jagger and Jagr, Spacey and selfies, the record-setting rookie and the gap-toothed Wookiee. It was about John Scott drawing a standing ovation then delighting the crowd with a spin-o-rama, looking like a twirling totem pole on ice. Pekka Rinne wielded a guitar instead of a stick. Two skaters swapped helmets for cowboy hats. A 4-year-old scored while two goalies fake-fought in the crease, then dropped his gloves, danced for the camera and went viral. “Sometimes it can be a little bit corny,” Oilers forward Taylor Hall said, “but tonight it was fun.”
The Eastern Conference technically won the 21st installment of this event, 29–12 in the aggregate scoring system, earning the right to decide whether it will play first or second in Sunday’s All-Star Game semifinals of the 3-on-3 tournament worth $1 million. (It will go first, it was later announced.) Baked beneath the fun, though, was what Capitals coach Barry Trotz called “some pretty sick skill,” the product of putting the world’s best beneath the spotlight and letting them go.
Look no further than Duchene for proof. As a 13-year-old raised in Ontario, he would watch the skills competition then retreat into his backyard rink to practice the moves he saw on television. “I tried to make my own stuff up,” he said, which led to his 25-year-old self cradling the puck like a lacrosse ball, high above his head, during the breakaway challenge. “I was playing for my 14-year-old self tonight,” he said.
It all looked so easy. Hometown favorite Shea Weber pummeled the puck at 108.1 MPH, 0.7 off Zdeno Chara’s all-time mark, drawing roars for “One more shot.” [Insert your Broadway boozing jokes here.] Red Wings freshman Dylan Larkin slightly slipped and still broke Mike Gartner’s full-rink skating record, which the Hall-of-Famer set while Larkin was still in the womb. Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban in part won the breakaway challenge with a juggling routine that included kicking the puck off his skate, mid-stride. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, the trendy Vezina Trophy favorite, launched three pucks from one crease toward the opposite goal. All three scooted into the net.
“Unbelievable,” Scott said, summing up what he saw.
But who will remember Duchene looking like Dwayne Robertson, or Aaron Ekblad wearing a blue sweatshirt that featured Kevin Spacey’s face in front of a space-themed background, or John Tavares sniping four targets within 13 seconds, or Evgeny Kuznetsov flipping passes into mini nets no bigger than a mailbox? No, Saturday night will forever belong to characters like Jagger Burns, age 4, son of San Jose defenseman Brent, defying dad’s orders after scoring in the breakaway challenge. “The plan was, I told him a hundred times, if you score and then the puck goes in, we’re going to celebrate then get a nice little picture together, the four of us,” Burns said of himself, Jagger, teammate Joe Pavelski and 5-year-old Nate Pavelski, who also participated in the attempt. “Then both kids went their opposite ways, shed the mitts. That was not a routine.”
Not to be outdone by his offspring, Burns took his second attempt in the breakaway challenge wearing a Chewbacca mask, homage to the character whose hair most resembled Burns’ bushy beard. Burns had bought the mask for the Sharks’ ugly sweater party around the holidays. “Amazon,” he said. “Pretty good website.”
And a pretty good moment, though not even the best hair-related event Bridgestone Arena witnessed. That belonged to Subban, who somehow found a white Jofa helmet, black official’s pants and a fake mullet that needed some spray-painting. Pair those with a No. 68 Florida Panthers jersey and a salute after scoring, and Subban’s homage to Jaromir Jagr was damn near perfect. “It's a tribute to Jags and the great career he’s had so far,” Subban said during an on-ice interview. “I guess I can be him for one shootout.”
Around an hour later, Trotz stood in the hall outside the home locker room, which had served as his office for 17 seasons with the Predators. Now steering the NHL-leading Capitals, he had watched the festivities in awe from the Eastern Conference bench. He marveled over Larkin’s speed and Weber’s shot. He enjoyed the entertainment, of course, but also appreciated essence of the event. After all, it was a skills competition.
“You see the skill, you see great players, you appreciate great things. Very few people on this planet can do that.”