Time to lighten up on All-Star weekend

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Considering the jam-packed RBC Center, the thousands of fans tailgating outside and the throngs that filled the streets of downtown Raleigh over All-Star Weekend, we've come to one simple conclusion: We in the media don't have a clue.

After watching yet another hitless game of over-passing, multiple 3-on-1s and lazy back-checking in Sunday's All-Star Game, it is sobering to listen to fans and players talk with such passion about an event that is held in such low regard by those who cover it.

A disconnect? You bet.

"I think [people] were probably surprised with the response that the community had given this event," said Eric Staal, captain of the losing squad Sunday. "I think for us we felt the energy, the buildup coming into this weekend. It was being around the community, talking about it. The fans have been excited, and then they delivered.

"It was awesome. I'm very proud of our fans and how they showed their support for this event and came out in throngs and were tailgating and doing all the things we know they do," Staal added. "It was exciting to be just a part of it with them and enjoy the whole experience."

Team Staal blew a 4-0 first-period lead and lost 11-10 to Team Lidstrom in a game in which the two teams combined for 91 shots on goal. Yet no one on Team Staal seemed sour.

There was Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers, moving around the room and getting his teammates to sign his jersey, a souvenir from his first NHL All-Star appearance.

"I'm not sure I'll get another chance to be at another," he said.

It would be a surprise if this was the only time the talented native of Hearst, Ontario, made his way to an All-Star event, but the sentiment is understandable and speaks to the attitude the players brought to Raleigh and the community returned to them.

Have some fun. Lighten up.

In the victorious dressing room of Team Lidstrom, captained by great Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, Danny Briere's children visited as the Flyers center was untying his skates, patting him on the back and whispering congratulations in his ear.
Coach Peter Laviolette's children were sporting well-autographed Team Lidstrom jerseys. Various players were also fitted with wireless microphones and provided entertaining commentary and comments during the game.

"It's a totally different environment to play this game," New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist said. "Going into the game, usually I'm pretty focused and prepared for the game. Here, it's about having fun. Even on the ice, you just enjoy yourself. It's very different."

Think of the All-Star Game as a kind of movie. How often do you suspend your disbelief in order to enjoy the story being told on the screen? The All-Star Game requires a similar suspension of disbelief. It's OK.

It's light, frothy and forgotten in a moment. That's OK, too.

It's easy for us in the media to be critical of the event because we chronicle the game at its best, when players are diving in front of shots to save a goal or playing with broken bones and lacerated faces and torn muscles. Those are the stories that, if we're doing it right, capture the essence of the game, the essence of what it means to be a team and pursue a goal through adversity. The game at its best provides us with stories of character and sacrifice.

Few, if any, of those qualities are evident at the All-Star Game, so there is a tendency to lash out, poke fun or simply scorn the event. It's as if the event is somehow an affront to us.

It shouldn't be.

There are good things about the weekend in general, and there were many good things specifically about the event in Raleigh. Even for the most cynical media types, it was hard not to feel a good deal of affection for the new innovation courtesy of former NHLer Brendan Shanahan, which had players draft their own teams Friday evening. The players bought in and had some fun. Even the "shame" of being picked last (Phil Kessel of Toronto had that distinction) was softened by a new car and $20,000 to give to his favorite charity. And, to his credit, Kessel, never at ease in the spotlight, was gracious in discussing the moment.

Fans ate it up. All of it.

The skills competition was again, from our perspective at least, a mess. At close to three hours, it was probably twice as long as it should have been. The gimmicky breakaway competition should be scratched, as it forces players too far outside their comfort zone, trying to do wacky things that make everyone a little uncomfortable.

A couple of suggestions. Why not have more skills that are drawn from practices? How about a 2-on-1 competition that would show players' defensive skills and get goaltenders more involved, which is always an issue at these events? How about mini 3-on-3 games using just the width of the ice as coaches often do to force players into handling the puck in tight quarters?

Then again, maybe the NHL doesn't need to do anything at all to this event. After all, if only the media hates it, what's the harm?

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.