NHL knows how to throw a party

The NHL's All-Star Weekend is hockey's Super Bowl Week. Except the NHL gets it right and doesn't have to worry about a boob overshadowing a storybook championship ending. The NHL plans its biggest party around a game that means nothing, outside of Joe Sakic adding a slammin' Dodge Durango to his vehicle arsenal. The star around the NHL's championship is not a B cup, it's the Stanley Cup.

After Sunday's All-Star Game, I interviewed Joe on the ice for NHL 2Night and asked him whether I could have the Durango since my current auto lease runs out in March. He just looked at me kind of funny. Minnesota's own Prince had a "Little Red Corvette", but Burnaby Joe has "Big *** Red Durango." WAAAAY more useful in Minnesota.

Sakic hosts one of the more lucrative and successful summer charity golf events in Colorado that benefits the Food Bank of Colorado. He admittedly does little in terms of running the event, but the vital thing he does is hold it every year. It's a small gesture that has resulted in millions raised. But that's Joe, understated and grand all at the same time. He's the kind of guy who, when he leaves the game, people will say, "Boy, he was better than I realized." People will also say the same thing when he leaves the earth. He's the ULTIMATE role model. Strive for great things, and don't waste any energy on pointing those things out. Your energy is better served applied elsewhere, and, in the end, others will trumpet for you.

You know it's a good weekend when you arrive Friday morning and return Monday morning and it felt like two weeks of living. That's what an NHL All-Star Weekend is like. It was a near-perfect weekend of planning and execution by the NHL, which includes the Minnesota Wild organization. Ray Bourque, Patrick Roy, Gordie Howe, Mike Eruzione, Phil Housley, Jim Craig, Kurt Russell (little guy, big skull), Miss Minnesota, Barenaked Ladies and plenty more window treatments.

The weekend started with a trip to the NHL's All-Star Fantasy at the Saint Paul Rivercentre. The NHL pays a company to run the event, the same company that runs the NBA All-Star Fantasy this weekend in Los Angeles. The Rivercentre is connected to the Wild's Arena. It had two floors and plenty of room. You haven't lived until you've beaten an inflatable goalie five-hole while wearing a suit and getting heckled by Nashville Predator play-by-play man Pete Weber. Good times.

Friday night, it was off to Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis to watch the two-time defending NCAA champion Minnesota Golden Gophers. Section 7, Row 7, Seat 7. No JumboTron, no loud music during play stoppages, and NO RED LINE! I saw skating, scoring chances, 100-foot passes and former Edmonton Oilers defenseman Charlie Huddy. His son Ryan, a center, plays for Bemidji State, Minnesota's opponent. The Gophers held on for the 2-1 win. Thomas Vanek, the fifth overall pick in last summer's NHL draft by the Sabres, didn't play, which was a bit disappointing. He was a bit banged up and is preparing for this weekend's games against Minnesota-Duluth. Sabres fans will love Thomas Vanek like they love Chris Drury. He has good size and a good personality and is nearly completely North American. He told me he left his native Austria to play in North America when he was 14. I could barely tell he had an accent. He will be a star in the NHL.

After the game, I talked with head coach Don Lucia. This is Lucia's fifth year at Minnesota and he already has won two titles. Herb Brooks won three NCAA titles while he was head coach at Minnesota from 1972 to 1979.

I met some of the players in the locker room and would later be accosted by Gopher defensemen P.J. Atherton and Chris Harrington for stepping on the big "M" in the locker room, which is apparently a no-no. Atherton threatened to punch me in the eye with his GINORMOUS 2003 NCAA championship bling ring he was wearing at the time, but I threatened to blackball him from future NHL 2Night highlights if he followed through on his assault. My threat worked, and we embraced in a moment of negotiated peace. Chris Harrington, whose dad, John, played on the "Miracle on Ice" team, was just laughing like Beavis. It's interesting to note that only one player on Minnesota's roster was alive when Herb Brooks coached the USA to a gold medal in 1980 -- Jerrid Reinholz was 7 months old. My Minnesota Golden Gopher experience was one I'll never forget. It was pure hockey. If I lived in the area, I would go to every game.

Saturday is media day, the YoungStars game and the SuperSkills competition. The best day in hockey for me. You can see, meet and talk to the players up close and personal. I interviewed Mark Messier for the first time and came away understanding the power he has over people. Other observations from media day: Tomas Vokoun looks like Moby (Nobody listens to Techno), Roberto Luongo has big feet, Gary Roberts' intensity is twofold when you stand four feet from him. I'm confident he could kill me in less than 10 seconds.

Later, at the YoungStars Game, I marveled at the lateral speed of Columbus Blue Jackets shwinger Nikolai Zherdev when he cut to the center of the ice. Many NHL defensemen will have nightmares dealing with him. Leaving Minnesota, Zherdev was in front of me at the security checkpoint at the airport. He was smaller than he looks on the ice, which was a good example of not only do NHL goalies have bigger equipment, but so do the players. Add better skating, longer hockey sticks, and that adds up to fewer square feet of playable ice. The college game I saw at Minnesota had an ice surface 20 feet wider than the NHL. Gopher coach Don Lucia told me that if the NHL just widened their ice surfaces by five feet, the league would see a difference.

The skills competition had its usual jaw-dropping exhibitions. Scott Niedermayer won the fastest skater contest and looked as though he wasn't even trying. Some people are so good at a specific task it looks as though they aren't trying. We must remember not to confuse efficiency with lack of effort. Meanwhile, Martin St. Louis and Ilya Kovalchuk know only one way when they lace on skates -- all out. In the future, when scoring increases, and everything falls just right, Kovalchuk is the one guy who could score 93 goals in a season. Jeremy Roenick was again the star of All-Star Weekend with his all-access audio pass, and his four-for-four performance in the accuracy shooting. No one is more watchable and listenable in the NHL.

Jeremy's one blunder was pointing out and apologizing to referee Blaine Angus for throwing that water bottle at him in Buffalo last month. It would have been more effective in person and besides, few knew Angus was A) the referee Roenick threw the water bottle at and B) in the building that night!

The NHL's annual All-Star Party was held in the Metrodome, which was cool. Cheap Trick was the house band. In honor of Jack Buck and his indelible 1991 World Series call of a Kirby Puckett game-winning home run in the Metrodome I screamed, "We will see you tomorrow night!!" as I left the party. Security assured me that I wouldn't.

Sunday was game day and, in the end, Sakic's day. Could it be the start of Joe's unforgettable 2004 year? A scoring title? Maybe. MVP? If Markus Naslund tails off or gets injured. (Otherwise, it's the year of Naslund for the Hart.) Stanley Cup Champion? As good a shot as any. Conn Smythe? He got one in 1996. Retirement if there is no hockey next year? Count on it. You can't top a year like that.

Last week, USA Hockey selected 20 players to compete at the 2004 International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship March 30-April 6 in Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The nine-nation tournament features the world's top female ice hockey players. The roster features 11 Olympians and 16 of the 20 players who were members of the 2003 U.S. Women's Select Team, which won a gold medal at the 2003 Four Nations Cup in Skövde, Sweden. At that tournament in Sweden, Cammi Granato scored a shootout goal after 21 shootout misses by the USA. One Shjon Podein Esq. was in attendance rooting on his fellow American while on break from his Swedish hockey career. With the movie "Miracle" now in theaters, we thought this was a good time to catch up with USA Hockey's most famous female player.

No. 1: Your plan is to take part in the 2006 Olympics. How is that going?
It's going well. It's tough for any of us women because we are all on our own in between Olympics for the most part. We don't really have a big league to play in, and everyone goes about their own way to find their best solution to stay in shape. Some girls play in men's leagues to stay in shape. I went to Canada and decided that was the best situation for me to keep in shape. I wouldn't talk about it for a while, but it's two years away and I'm ready to go all out and prepare to be there.

Cammi turns 33 on March 25.

No. 2: Any fears?
I feel like I am still on top of my game and can still contribute to the team, and until I can't I'll keep playing. I have a passion for the game, and it is where I am happiest. I have confidence in my game, but you just never know if one day you will wake up and you body says, "No more."

Cammi is a nutrition and fitness fanatic.

No. 3: So, age is a factor?
I've been the oldest for a while now. But with training and nutrition, you can get a lot of longevity.

Cammi is the only U.S. player to have skated at all seven World Championships so far (1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001).

No. 4: Tell me about the World Championship.
It's a different format this year since last year's worlds were canceled because of the SARS scare. There are nine teams, and I like the format better, because potentially we are going to play Canada before the final and that never happens at the Worlds.

Granato has scored 70 points (46-24) in 35 World Championship games.

No. 5: Give me the state of women's hockey.
It's a bittersweet feeling. The game has grown so much -- yet you go to the Olympics, as we did in 1998, win a gold medal and then no one can see us play hockey for a year. There's no access for kids or grownups to be fans. If you're a fan, you cannot follow us. You can follow us for two weeks, every two years. And if you are a player, there is an expiration date on women's hockey. If you don't make the national team, you are done after college. It would be nice if we could have a minor league hockey setup to push each other and be a part of the community helping to be hockey role models for young girls.

In the seven-year history of the tournament, the U.S. and Canada have squared off in the gold-medal game each time, with the U.S. collecting seven silver medals. There have been three gold-medal games with one goal deciding the winner, including two U.S. overtime losses to Canada, 4-3 and 3-2, in 1997 and 2000, respectively.

No. 6: So, after the 2006 Olympics, that will be it for you?
Maybe on the ice, but I'll never walk away from hockey. I hope to always have a major role in hockey. There is an interest in coaching; I'm just not sure what level. I love teaching kids and currently I have a camp in the summer for girls. Hockey has been a big part of my life since I was young, and it will never leave me. Then again, I thought I was going to retire after '98 and here I am still sweating.

Cammi graduated from Providence with a bachelor's degree in social science.

No. 7: What is the family's reaction to your brother Tony becoming head coach of the Colorado Avalanche?
It is so surreal. When he got hired last season, I was needling him saying, "Hey Tony, you have to run practice. Do you know HOW to run practice?!" We have lots of pride. I find I enjoy watching his games more than when he played because I used to be concerned for his health. He's definitely taken on the persona of a coach. You have to take the game home with you, and when you are with him, you can just see his wheels spinning. But he's right where he wants to be, and he seems to just fit behind the bench.

Cammi is dating ESPN's Ray Ferraro. Her pet peeve with him is that he has taken the fire he played with on the ice to the streets of Canada. If the light turns greens and you hear a honk behind you, Cammi says it's probably Chicken Parm.

No. 8: The Basketball Hall of Fame has women members, and it is my belief that because of your contributions to women's hockey and the explosive growth the game has seen in the U.S., you should be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame some day with Canada's most deserving inductee.

Granato: I've never thought about that. It would be wonderful to have a woman inductee. The Hockey Hall of Fame is an international entity, and international hockey for women is our lives. That's it. That's what we live for. We've put everything into it, and there is no doubt in my mind that a woman belongs in. I don't know about me. I think I need to score a few more goals.

Cammi served as radio color commentator for the Los Angeles Kings during the 1998-99 season, becoming just the second female broadcaster in NHL history.

Hey John,
With Barry Melrose buying part of the Adirondack IceHawks, it brings up a couple interesting questions. If you bought the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, would you change their nickname? If you started a new hockey team, what nickname would you give them?
Champlin, Minn.

Over 10 years as the Ducks is a long time and we have people who have paid hard-earned money for hats and shirts. Fans spend too much money on the game; I wouldn't be so insensitive to them. I move a team to Seattle, Madison, or Hartford and call them the Grinders.

I just wanted to let you know that Flyer anthem singer Lauren Hart's renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Oh, Canada," and "God Bless America" can all be found on a CD that the Flyers sell in their merchandise booths. I felt odd shelling out $10 for three songs that last about a total of five minutes, but I think she's the best anthem singer out there also. Maybe you can get Keith Jones to go pick you up a copy.
Alan Florendo

Or maybe, since I dumped my girlfriend Morgan Fairchild, I can get a copy from my new girlfriend ... LAUREN HART ... Yeah, that's the ticket.

Podes is one of my favorite players ever; few have had the heart and determination. My first son Brayden Connor is 2 years old. His brother arrives in May. Any ideas? Too bad I am not Swedish, or Hakan Loob would be a no-brainer. Say hello to Ken.
Andrew Connor

P.S. You need to add the time it takes to get dressed and get out to the Sunday morning save percentage. The shorter the time, the better.

Brayden Connor. GREAT name. Good name for a defenseman. Well done. A brother? We need a good center name. Bradley Andrew Connor.

Please help me pick a new team to cheer for. The Rangers have looked so bad over the past two weeks they have sucked the will to live from my body. I'm starting to like the Thrashers but the baby blue sweaters threw me off. Any suggestions? Who does Ken cheer for?
Best regards,

Like me, Ken the Otter loves all 30 teams equally. Atlanta is a great team to pick. They will be a good team for the next 10-15 years, will win a Stanley Cup within seven years, have cool uniforms, play in a good rink and are in a warm weather state, so it's a good trip to take every March to see a couple of games in person.

I'm the owner of the forum mentioned in the letter from Mark Berec you published in your column last week, regarding Rick Nash's tattoo. I thought you'd like to know we used the same choices in the poll as you proposed originally (including the possibility of an otter and write in votes), and "Espen Knutsen wrestling a squirrel" was the runaway winner.
Tony Peters
Mount Laurel, N.J.

Some readers are insinuating that Rick is hiding a boyhood love of the San Jose Sharks.

On a good day (no snow) it takes exactly five hours from my driveway in Springfield, Mass., to the arena parking lot in Buffalo for a Sabres game. I know it sounds crazy, but I have to do what I can to support "my team." I am just grateful that Buffalo still has a hockey team. I am a true fan and I even have Center Ice on Direct TV and a TiVo just to make sure that I catch all the games.
Robert Azeez

Name one NBA fan that would buy a mini-ticket plan and drive five hours to see the games. Hey Sabres front office, please send Robert Azeez of Springfield, Mass., an autographed sweater of Chris Drury as a way of saying thanks for paying such a price to support the team and being a fan.

Who would you say is an all-around better player, Markus Naslund or Peter Forsberg? Also, who's your pick for this season's Art Ross winner?
Vancouver, British Columbia

WOW, what a question. It's tough comparing a center and wing. Forsberg is the game's best center and Naslund is probably the game's best winger. Naslund will win the Art Ross as the NHL scoring leader. And I think Naslund will win the MVP. But I look at Peter Forsberg the same way I look at Larry Bird, and I'll never admit either has a peer who is better, because no peer is smarter, more aware or more driven than No. 21 or No. 33. They are athletic, iconic, supreme beings.

There's been a lot of talk on Kings Talk after the games about Alexander Frolov. Nick Nickson and Daryl Evans have been asking fans to name a Russian player who plays like Frolov. No one has come up with a satisfactory answer. Who would you say? We're beginning to believe Frolov is going to be a one-of-a-kind player.
Catalina Tom

I have been extolling the attributes of Alexander "6-4, 6-9 with the" Frolov in this column since the first game I saw him play. Some players are given the gift of magic in their hands, and Frolov has it. He has good size, is smart and likely will be a very durable player. In that way, he has a lot of Dave Andreychuk in him, but smoother. So, let's say an amalgamation of Dave Andreychuk and a tall Ray Whitney.

Hey Bucci,
Just had to drop you a line after making the trip up to Glens Falls, N.Y., on Friday night to see our boy Barry in his abbreviated return to coaching. What a blast. And by the way, the Melrose love was translated at the merchandise table, as well. I am a proud owner of a brand-spanking-new "Return of the Mullet" t-shirt, featuring you-know-who as the head of a monster in a parody of an old movie poster. Absolutely classic.
Take care,
Marc D'Amore
Troy, N.Y.

For the next Adirondack IceHawks game, the first 1,000 fans receive a 1990 Pontiac Firebird.

What gives you such confidence that any stoppage won't last longer than 60 days. I sure hope you are right. Tough being a Caps fan this year, but I still am.

In this economic and fan climate, I cannot imagine a major professional sports league shutting down a year or more over labor issues. But, I guess there can always be a first for everything.

If "The Lifting" is for takeoffs, "I've Been High" is for landings. One of the best REM songs ever.
Richard Gizbert

When I think of "I've Been High," I think of a young woman diving in a swimming pool, swimming underwater for an entire lap and then getting out of the water and walking inside her house. I don't know why, but that's the image I get. It would make a great opening scene song in a movie. I think.

John -
Are Niinimaa, Nurmimen, Numminen, Noronen, and Nieminen all the same person?

Na, ah.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.