Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL All Star 2004 [Print without images]

Friday, February 6, 2004
Celebrating in a hockey hotbed

By John Davidson
Special to ESPN.com

We should always look for ways to better the game of hockey -- if we stop then shame on us -- but the NHL's glass should always be seen as half-full.

Mark Messier
Mark Messier will get a chance to celebrate a decorated 25-year career.
Sure, there is a looming labor problem, but the on-ice product has been terrific this year and we could have probably found enough outstanding players to double the size of the All-Star rosters assembled in St. Paul, Minn.

As it is, there is plenty of turnover from last year's game and a lot of new faces, some old and some young. That's what makes the All-Star Game fresh, though, and it will be interesting to see if veterans like Toronto's Gary Roberts and Philadelphia's Keith Primeau let it all hang out like young stars such as Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk and Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis did last year in Florida.

And Kovalchuk is someone to look out for this year as well. The young Russian put on a show two years ago in the inaugural YoungStars game, plays with energy and flair, knows where the stage is and enjoys the spotlight. Kovalchuk is no doubt ready to put a show on. Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick still plays that way after 15-plus NHL seasons and one can only hope he'll be bumping people along the boards as he did in last year's All-Star Game.

Those who want to see a playmaker in action should keep an eye on Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, a first-time selection who is daring on the ice and can makes things happen whenever he has the puck. I'm personally looking forward to seeing 19-year-old Rick Nash of Columbus -- the NHL's leading goal-scorer -- take his game up against the very best the NHL has to offer. And of course the entire game will be that much better because of the speed on both benches.

With so many new faces on the rosters there is a ton of potential excitement in store and I hope every player out there goes for it on every shift.

And to those who wonder if the YoungStars game, SuperSkills competition and All-Star Game itself might add fatigue to an already brutal regular-season and playoff schedules, I say take a look around. New York's Mark Messier is playing his 15th and likely final All-Star game, and the chance to celebrate his outstanding career is a great thing. For the young guys it's a maybe once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play alongside some of the best in the history of the game. Ask any player on either roster and he will tell you he's thrilled to be there.

The NHL could address the fatigue issue situation in a more beneficial manner by shortening the schedule from 82 games to a more manageable number, but All-Star weekend should remain intact as a chance to celebrate the efforts of the best players in the NHL and the game of hockey itself.

The switch from the North America vs. the World format back to Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference has also helped the weekend. The global concept was admirable, but the East-West format gives us a good mix of talents on both teams and brings out natural competition between the conferences. It just makes more sense for the game.

And make no mistake, the true excitement of the games and the skills competition will be put into perspective by the fans in St. Paul. The state of Minnesota as a whole is one of the great hockey hotbeds in the United States, and with the community being so excited to embrace this celebration and show off its beautiful arena the hockey world will be galvanized. I'm taking my family because this is a heart-and-soul hockey area and as a native of Canada it's beautiful to see.

If you want to show up with your glass half-empty you're better off staying home. Hockey is a great game, so enjoy it!

Former NHL goalie Jon Davidson is a hockey analyst for ABC Sports.