John Darnielle lives in Durham and sings around the world for the Mountain Goats. He came to hockey late, but he fell in love with it when he saw his wife lace up her skates in Ames, Iowa. One of the reasons he moved to North Carolina in 2003 was because Raleigh had a hockey team. His new album, All Eternals Deck, is due in March.
1. The line to meet Jeff Skinner is more than 300 people long. It snakes around the floor of the Raleigh Convention Center, looping the children’s puffy-sticks hockey area and abutting the DJ.
It intersects the line to see the Stanley Cup, which is considerably shorter, and it crosses a food line or two. You know it’s at least 300 people long, though, because of the identically attired people with lanyards and laminates who’ve begun telling people about three-quarters of the way down that there’s no guarantee they’ll get an autograph from Jeff Skinner, because he’s only promised to sign 300, which he’ll start doing once he gets here at 3. I ask one of the workers when the line formed. She tells me, “These people have been here since we opened the building at 2.”
2. The All-Star Game is a little strange, because while it’s an event that draws people from all over the planet, it doesn’t actually count for much. It won’t help any team in the overall standings, or hurt any player’s plus/ minus rating. It’s just a public concentration of power and talent, putting all the best players in the world on the ice at the same time. If either of the two All-Star teams that play against each other were actual NHL teams, they’d be able to hold their own against any team in the history of the game, and they’d run the table against the rest of the league. But when they take the ice here on game day, they’ll be playing as teams for the first and last time. And because next week they’ll all be playing in games that count, the All-Star game rules out what commentators call, in one of my favorite pieces of sports terminology ever, “the physical game.” No fights, no hard body checks, no penalties except for occasional offsides. Just the most elite players in the world, all playing hockey in the same arena.
3. The preshow All-Star media availability mix zone is a slightly elevated stage at the far end of the convention hall. On it stand about a dozen major NHL stars, sometimes with press handlers next to them, sometimes braving it alone. They arrive at one end of the stage and work their way down, giving interviews as they go. Microphones and cameras and Flip videos and cell phones are held up to them in straining clusters which grow thickest as they approach young Jeff Skinner, who looks like he’s about 18 years old because that’s exactly how old he is. At the time of this writing, he’d scored one goal this season for every year he’s been on this earth: 18 goals, plus 22 assists, for a total of 40 points. He is a rising star, a strong contender for rookie of the year, and he plays for your Carolina Hurricanes. Nobody else this week is quite so squarely in the spotlight. Eric Staal, the team captain for both the Canes and one of the two All-Star teams, comes close, and Alexander Ovechkin’s a global superstar. But this weekend in Raleigh, Skinner commands his own orbit. It is remarkable to see.
I watch him field interviews for half an hour, adeptly and with great charm and confidence, but toward the end his voice is starting to give. His handler hustles him off, and things seem to be getting quieter, but then Ovechkin arrives, and I see what established celebrity looks like. Everybody closes in on him at once, and he barely blinks. He looks like he’s having a conversation with his mailman, only there are 30 mailmen from 10 different countries, all with their own camera crews.
4. NHL All-Star games used to be played conference versus conference, but this year the captains pick their players in a real-time draft that the press watches via live broadcast. What sports geek doesn’t love a draft, especially one with a little drama? The big question is whether they’re going to break up the Sedin twins, Swedish brothers who’ve always played on a line together. This gets answered early in the first round: Staal picks Daniel Sedin, and Niklas Lidstrom, the “away” team captain from Detroit, gets Henrik. By the time Team Staal gets to its tenth pick, the people in the crowd who’ve been yelling “Skinner!” are starting to sound more agitated than amused, but he finally goes, first pick of the third round. This makes him the youngest All-Star in any of the major sports since Steve Yzerman, the only other 18-year-old ever to play on an All-Star team. Let the gentle reader be reminded here that this kid plays for the Carolina Hurricanes.
5. Prior to the red carpet walk of the 2011 NHL All-Star teams, there’s the promenade of the mascots. I don’t think there’s much I can tell you about the promenade that isn’t already covered by the phrase “promenade of the mascots,” but the deal is this: Getting the teams to the stadium via several buses is a heavily coordinated operation, and fans gather early in the parking lot and in front of the stadium to tailgate, hang out, get autographs and soak up the North Carolina sun.
You’d have to be pretty crummy to not find the whole scene charming. It’s oddly low-key; the fans get excited and cheer when the players get announced, but the announcements come over a soothingly high school-auditorium-sounding PA system. The crowd feels like a big, loose family. Sure, during the walk the announcer dude gives some television verve to his voice when announcing Eric Staal. And sure, fans who’ve traveled from Michigan and California and Finland and Russia are beer-hat stoked to be here. But the whole thingthronging crowds with Sharpies and programs in hands and dancing mascots and allseems pretty mellow, and my local pride swells. One thing our region can teach the world is how to go hard and still stay mellow.
6. The skills competition happens the day before the game: There’s goalie races and a speed-gun head-to-head, at which, this year, a new record will get set by Zdeno Chara, the 6′ 9″ Boston defenseman who’s the tallest man ever to play in the NHL. As the hour of the puck drop for the skills competition draws near, though, it becomes clear that somebody’s trying to bait me, because the arena lights dim, and the ice is suddenly lit from overhead by a mind-bending green, blue, magenta and yellow pattern, rave-era psychedelic. The music gets loud, and the announcer says something about mascots, and then suddenly there they all are at once, on the ice, mock-battling and vamping and resembling any number of dreams that I had once while on drugs. And then I figure out how to work the little television next to my press box seat, and I learn that I’m missing the All-Star State of the League Address, about which I feel a little bad, but then I think: “State of the League Address”? Really? At which I return, without guilt, to my bird’s-eye view of the mascot game below, where, as I write, Stinger the Columbus Blue Jacket has just ripped one past Carlton the Bear.
7. Once the mascot game is over, all our folksy lower-budget charm gets escorted to the nearest exit. Both teams take the ice for warm-ups, and the PA begins blasting music loud enough to give me this involuntary urge to start divulging state secrets for relief. I make up a few and whisper them into my popcorn, hoping it’s bugged, but either the wire isn’t working or my secrets aren’t good enough, because the PA blares “Toxic.” The bass shakes my fillings. But then the proceedings begin, and the music changes over to “Carolina in My Mind.” Anybody who doesn’t like “Carolina in My Mind” is my enemy and I choose pistols at dawn.
8. We take in a little of the tailgating scene on the day of the actual game. Life’s sweet, small things often tend to describe themselves, and that’s true here, too. People wear jerseys: Lindros & Fleury, Whalers and Canes, Staal and Cole and Skinner, Skinner, Skinner. It feels relaxed, and friendly, and familiar. North Carolina has saved one of its prettiest, warmest winter days for its guests from all over. People gather around cars and lounge in lawn chairs, eating and visiting and drinking and grilling and playing cornhole. And drinking Bud Light, about which, if I weren’t already way over word count, I would have few choice words.
9. The game itself, when it finally gets under way, is like a skills competition with added defense. The level of sheer scoring talent present is ridiculous, which accounts for Team Staal’s lightning-fast 4-0 lead. At 10:50, Team Lidstrom finally gets one back and proceeds to take three more in four minutes, including one on a gorgeous breakaway from Matt Duchene. We go into the intermission tied at 4. Soon afterward, it’s 6-6, and then Team Lidstrom takes its first lead of the game, with 4:29 left to play in the period. Skinner breaks away a minute later, and the room goes nuts, as for one hot second we all feel like we’re looking at the same glorious moment about to go down. But he doesn’t manage to score. And it’s not really a big deal.
It’s not really a big deal because the All-Star game is a communal event where, for once, you can actually believe that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. How many times, as a kid, did you hear this and think, “You’re only telling me that to make me feel good, because I lost.” At the All-Star game, though, the core truth of a hoary cliché glimmers on the ice, goal after goal. I would say that, though. I was for Team Staal, which ended up one goal short of an 11-11 tie, none of them looking even remotely bothered by it, hugging and high-fiving and heading back for one last round of All-Star interviews before the games start counting again.