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  Vancouver Gets Good, Clean Hockey Fun During All-Star Weekend
by Carol Schram, Vancouver Correspondent

The Gary Bettman era of the National Hockey League has hit upon a clever formula for its All Star Games: award the event to cities with lousy hockey teams, so the community can't help but be swept away by the excitement and star power. Since the weekend was cancelled in 1995 due to the lockout, it has been held in Boston, San Jose, now Vancouver, and next year it heads off to Tampa Bay.

I suppose that when the game was awarded to Vancouver last season, it wasn't with the idea that the Canucks were going to be cellar-dwellers in January of 1998. Truth is, though, the team's dismal, controversy-plagued season certainly helped to shine a positive light on the wholesome, non-threatening All-Star festivities.

Of course, the weekend wasn't quite as meaningless as it has been in years gone by. The new "North America vs. the World" format added a certain degree of intensity, and with the start of the Olympics just three weeks away, both players and coaches used the time away from the daily NHL grind to start turning their thoughts to the upcoming events in Nagano. While the roster of Team North America obviously didn't include all members of the Olympic Team Canada and Team USA, both management squads used the opportunity to gather their players, take team photos, and start planning strategy.

Friday night, a crowd of over 14,000 gathered to watch Team Canada take on Team USA - in women's hockey. The rivalry between these two squads has grown steadily over the past four years, and is building towards the first-ever Olympics featuring the women's game as a full medal sport. In fact, the turnout for the game in Vancouver was the largest crowd ever for a women's hockey match - and the game was one of the better contests that local hockey fans have seen this year. No shrinking violets in this bunch, Team Canada was out to avenge its loss to the Americans in the Three Nations Cup just before Christmas, and a fierce game resulted in a one-goal victory for the home side.

Canada's Men's Team also got together for the first time on Friday, holding its official media kickoff that evening with a party at Planet Hollywood. The only member missing was Rod Brind'Amour, home with his wife who was about to give birth to their first child. Due to Olympic deadlines, Rod's spot was taken by a stand-in for the official team photo, and his head will be added in later through the magic of some program like PhotoShop.

The players also got to check out a mockup of their Olympic village dorm-rooms, including cots that are not even long enough to hold many of the NHL's "biggest" stars. Nevertheless, unlike the NBA Dream Teamers, Team Canada is adamant that it wants to absorb the full Olympic experience.

Celebrity sightings abounded all over Vancouver on Friday night.particularly at the swankier hotels and busier nightspots. The official event was a "Cigar Party" on Granville Island, but the players seemed to spread out pretty effectively where the good times could be had. While countrymen often hung with countrymen - players like Teemu Selanne and fellow Finn Jari Kurri were virtually inseparable all weekend - NHL teammates also stuck together, and "Teddy Flash" was also happy to spend some quality time with fellow Mighty Duckling Paul Kariya - here only to visit family and perform his Olympic duties. For the most part, let's just say Friday wasn't a night when many players were concerned about getting their rest and making curfew in preparation for Saturday's taxing Skills Competition.

Normally, when you attend a hockey game, you feel like the true spectator at the event, while the television audience has a chance to peek into your world. The game's the thing, the crowd keeps it honest, and that was essentially true during the Heroes of Hockey portion of Saturday's events. The NHL Heroes squeaked past the Vancouver Canucks Heroes by a 3-2 score in a suspenseful contest with some good play, some good laughs, and a sense of wonder about whether or not Garth Butcher or Thomas Gradin might still be able to help today's Canucks. The two fifteen- minute periods flew by, and the Heroes truly left the people wanting more.

Certainly, they got more glitz and flash during the Skills Competition - from the player introductions to the pure number of TV personalities and technical crew members scattered all over the ice. But it was clear from the get-go that the Skills Competition was a made-for-TV event: the live audience was present to provide little more than ambient crowd reaction to enhance the effect for the television viewer. Event M.C. Dave Randorf, now of Canada's TSN, kept the crowd well-informed, but he and long-time Canucks arena announcer John Ashbridge were noticeably lacking in the high-energy leadership that ESPN probably would have liked, in terms of keeping the crowd pumped up. Of course, the crowd would have probably been happier if their view of the events wasn't blocked by various camera crews on the ice, and if the scoring for the competition made even the slightest sense. Goals were omitted, non-goals were counted, the fastest-skater competition was a joke, and it never even occurred to the technicians to check the cable between the radar gun and the display device as poor Dimitri Mironov took shot after shot after shot after shot. When you see the lack of attention that the show's producers pay to the actual "skills" involved in this event, it's easy to understand why the players have no particular interest in bringing themselves to the arena in tip-top form. When results are recorded willy- nilly, instead of according to actual performance, what exactly would be the point of giving your all??

In truth, the haphazard running of the competition is the one part of the weekend that really looks like it could be improved in future years. The most heart-warming smiles of the whole event came from the representatives of (company name omitted due to LCS Hockey policy against The Man) and the promotions firm that put together that $5 Million Shot contest - when hapless Wayne King went in the tank and their dream came true - it cost them a lowly $10,000 for all that publicity!

After the hockey events, it was off to Ballantyne Pier, on the waterfront, for the big schmooze- fest of the weekend - a huge party with a Hollywood theme called Ice, Camera, Action. The guest list numbered between 3,000 and 4,000 - with probably 2/3 of attendees being hockey- related VIPs from out of town. The giant hall was arranged as a number of different movie sets, with different themes, different food and beverages, and different activities. Since the powers that be at the National Hockey League once again cheaped out on a media pass for your faithful reporter, all I can tell you is that, from players to league elite to local media to crew people, everyone said the event was quite a spectacle and a great time was had by all.

Oh - I can also tell you that not every All-Star stayed at the event till closing at 2:00 am. A few members of Team USA, in particular, seemed determined to make the rounds around town until the wee small hours. At least one certain member of Team Canada who has been hamming it up with his great comic timing in a series of pre-Olympic commericals decided that he would go in for the jazz-and-cigar vibe, and Canuck rookie and Team Sweden member Matthias Ohlund seemed determined to take advantage of the weekend by spending every moment he could spare with countryman Daniel Alfredsson. But where, oh where, was Mats Sundin????

Here in Vancouver, bars close at 2:00 every day but Sunday, but All Stars obviously are truly superhuman. With clothing and equipment companies, food and drink makers, and everyone else under the sun wooing players for sponsorship and endorsement, let's just say that the boys' options are still pretty wide open when the rest of ours start to close. I won't name names, but if you get your hands on a videotape of the All Star Game from Sunday afternoon, I'm guessing you can pick out the culprits when they do those close-ups on the faces during the player introductions.

I'll confess right here, too - I was supposed to go check out the Pinnacle FANtasy interactive event on Sunday morning at 9:00 am. I didn't make it, but my Mom got Bobby Hull's autograph and got her picture taken with the Stanley Cup. Again, by all reports, the event was a raging success and a lot of fun for even the casual fan. If it ever comes to your town, don't be like me - make sure you take it in.

I did get up and running in time for the game itself, though, at 1:00 p.m. The show opened with local "puck rockers" the Hanson Brothers doing their rendition of Stompin' Tom Connors' "The Hockey Song". While they showed tremendous enthusiasm, the sound was so perfect that I suspected them of lip-syncing, a detail that was unfortunately confirmed midway through a verse when the lead singer dropped his wireless microphone: no thud, no feedback.and the vocal part continued perfectly while the mic lay on the ice. Hmmm. Smoke and mirrors, anyone?

Unfortunately, show organizers also erred, this time on the side of spontaneity, when they allowed Bryan Adams to go cold with the Canadian Anthem. Apparently our national hero had flubbed the words in rehearsal - what exactly does it mean when he forgets the "glorious and free" part? The tension was obvious when he stepped out onto the red carpet in his swankiest grey t-shirt.and sure enough, he made two small mistakes, drawing partly from the older version of the lyrics that were officially changed a couple of decades ago. One word of advice for your upcoming world tour Bryan - TelePrompTer!

After the anthem, the puck was finally dropped by some fancy flying spaceship, and the All Star Game was officially underway. Unlike the distinctly partisan crowd, I got pretty excited by Teemu Selanne's pretty first goal 53 seconds into the contest: after all, I hardly ever see anybody score on Patrick Roy! But GM Place went as quiet as it often does in the first period - as the "home team" falls behind.

Anways, you know the basic story of the game. Despite Ken Hitchcock's "so simple it's brilliant" strategy of forming World Team lines based on country of origin "and hoping the Czechs and the Slovaks can get along," the big man maintained his perfect record of being winless as a coach in every All-Star appearance he has made at every level of hockey. The All- Finn line of Selanne, Kurri, and Saku Koivu was probably the most cohesive unit on the ice for either team, although there were also flashes of brilliance between old teammates Gretzky and Messier - and between Pavel Bure and the free-agent center that perhaps the Canucks should have pursued even more diligently this past summer - Igor Larionov.

As a Canadian, it was a little tough to cheer for the squad featuring those dreaded Team USA members who caused such a big blow to our national pride during last year's World Cup tournament. Leave it to Theoren Fleury for the defining quote. After playing a great game lined up with Keith Tkachuk and Mike Modano, the gap-toothed one quipped "If I'd had two Canadian forwards on my line, I would have celebrated my goal more." Frankly, despite a good performance from Lindros, Sakic, Scott Stevens, and a number of other Canadians, and despite the fact that the Americans seemed focused on excelling at some of the more social sports during the weekend, the gang of LeClair, Tkachuk, Amonte, Chelios and the rest are a big, strong bunch who appear to be at the top of their games right now. Watch out in Nagano!

On a lighter note, some of the best between-play entertainment I have ever seen came courtesy of the Nike Goalies, who are really coming into their own. This season's Montreal Canadiens goalie, forced to become a gardener because of Mats Sundin, is a classic - "Die, Maple Leafs, die!" Throughout the game, they interspersed brief clips on the Jumbotron.

First, the goalie dropped a banana peel on the floor outside the Leafs' dressing room - then Sundin is shown walking out the door and absently stepping around the slippery threat. The joke continued throughout the game - with more and more banana peels. Then, in the third period, they switched to the goalie spray-painting graffiti on a white brick wall: first, the tremendous insult "Sundin is a..Swedish person", and my personal favorite "Mats Sundin likes ABBA". They also featured Florida's bank-robbing goalie, and debuted a commercial featuring another former NHL netminder, now working as a babysitter, who erupts into a fit of rage over his inability to stop Theoren Fleury. The centerpiece of his rant: "Five-foot-six - he's only five-foot-six!!!" Those Nike spots are always clever and entertaining, and that 30-second clip drew one of the biggest ovations of the afternoon from a generally happy and enthusiastic crowd. The three live goalies also provided terrific comic relief throughout the two days of festivities - constantly doing pratfalls and getting into scraps on the ice, then, during one intermission, "taking action" by chaining themselves to a GM Place net in an effort to "be recognized" by the National Hockey League for their past efforts. That's just great stuff.

The screen was also used to great effect during play stoppages with a number of Saturday Night Live-style commercial parodies produced for last year's NHL Awards. Two favorites of mine: the NHL Campbell's Soup collection featuring flavors like Turkey Lumme, Cam Chowder, and Nikolai Khabiboulliabase.and Keith and Wayne Primeau presenting a new hockey helmet for the nineties - with the hair attached to the outside.

Despite the steady presence of entertainment industry celebrities in this city, the "Hollywood Star" designated to play EA Sports' NHL '98 between periods was none other than former Full House star Dave Coulier - a longtime NHL fan who was also pressed into action as co-host of the Skills Competition. Scanning the crowd, the best they could do was James Doohan from Star Trek and some guy who was in Slap Shot. But on Team North America's bench, young television commercial star Ty Gretzky spent the game hangin' out with the trainer, gazing at the many NHL mascots roaming the arena, and occasionally tapping his famous father on the shoulder with a question or a comment - sometimes right in the middle of play. Truthfully, though - and I don't usually go in for this sort of thing - one of the most endearing sights of the whole weekend was during the post-game presentations, when young Ty was curled up, sitting on top of the boards at the home bench, in the lap of the Florida Panthers' team mascot. What could make a kid happier?

After the game, the All Star VIPs headed off to the PNE for their wrap-up party, at the Pinnacle FANtasy site. They got unlimited access to all the events and displays, and partook of yet another magnificent feast of food and beverages. Sunday was also Mark Messier's 37th birthday, so he took off to one of the most fashionable Italian restaurants in town for his celebration with friends and family, then many of the boys hooked up again at a local nightclub to wind out the weekend. Only problem, though - due to a crazy B.C. liquor law, bars close at midnight on Sundays, so many of the players were only just showing up as the night was winding to a close. By the time all was said and done, though, it was another who's who of hockey, with everyone from Mess to Chelios to Saku Koivu and Patrick Roy in for the last hurrah before headin' back to their day jobs.

It's been a pretty bleak year to be a hockey fan in this town. Absorbing, sure, but not with much to celebrate. The pure "fun-first" attitude behind the All Star festivities was a refreshing blast of fresh air, and the entertainment value of the whole weekend far surpassed my expectations. Even though I didn't get a press pass, congratulations nonetheless to the NHL for putting on a first-class event, and to the City of Vancouver for being such warm and gracious hosts. In a way, All Star weekend is nothing more than a giant trade show, but there's no doubt the NHL knows how to do it with style. Now, just clean up that Skills Competition!

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