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NHL basks in awesome celebration

OK, so the NHL All-Star Game is a misnomer. It's not a game and hasn't been one for years. It's a form of expression for great players who can showcase their skill when they're given time and space. It's a celebration for the NHL, a sales pitch, a cash cow for the host city, a party.

Skate and shoot, meet Oktoberfest.

Zdeno Chara displayed his 105.9 mph slapper during the SuperSkills competition, for example, but Big Zed doesn't get such opportunities during the regular season. It made you wonder why he doesn't fire that cannon for the Bruins during a shootout and see if any goalies are smart enough to get out of the way.

But it was fun to watch, along with goalie Tim Thomas falling on his fanny while racing Cam Ward in full equipment, along with players trying to figure out which Sedin was Henrik and Daniel (good luck), along with Team Lidstrom's 11-10 victory over Team Staal in the 58th All-Star Game.

Patrick Sharp was named Most Valuable Player after he had a goal and three assists in a losing cause in a game that had 91 shots combined. Sharp summed up the importance of the game itself when he was asked if he would trade in his award and the car that came with it in exchange for winning.

"I thought we won," Sharp said with a laugh.

None of it mattered because hockey fans in Raleigh weren't looking for a great game. They were looking for a great time. In that sense, they were no different than the smiling, easygoing players who participated on the ice Sunday before going back to their teams and cranking up the rest of the season.

The NHL spruced up the game this year with selected captains picking the teams. The genius wasn't in the fantasy draft but the debate over the fantasy draft. Discussion equates to interest, and interest turns into money. Gimmicky as it was, the NHL will eventually wind up winning by collecting more dough.

Based on the One Bills Drive-style tailgate party, complete with a familiar -- I kid you not -- empty Genny can resting in a parking space outside RBC Center on Sunday, the NHL added to a growing number of hockey fans in the Research Triangle and beyond. It was precisely what the league has tried to accomplish.

"The fans were tremendous," Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said. "It was great for the players and the fans from out of town to come in here and see how hockey is in the South. They're going to go home with a different perspective on Raleigh and the game itself. It was just a party and entertainment, really. We're blessed with the fact that we get to play here every day."

You only need a few days in Raleigh to understand that rookie sensation Jeff Skinner is a local pop star. Fans are smitten with the 18-year-old and his immense talent, aw-shucks persona and boy-next-door looks. Hundreds of fans waited in a line that circled around a city block for an autograph signing over the weekend.

Why him?

Skinner effectively has tapped into the younger generation the NHL had been seeking when it expanded and allowed teams such as the Hartford Whalers to migrate south. Kids these days are adrenaline junkies who want everything at top speed -- their social lives, their information, their video games and, yes, their sports.

Hockey fills their needs with its tempo and its temperament, its high pace and competitive toughness, a charming mix of grace and guts. The game has a way of grabbing hold, and teenage stars like the speedy Skinner are players with whom the younger generation can identify. The NHL merely needs to wait for these kids to grow up, get real jobs and become hockey-loving, ticket-buying fans.

"That's sometimes all you need, a young player to become the face of the franchise or the fan favorite," Chara said. "All of a sudden, kids say, 'I want to play hockey, and I want to be like this guy. I want to be one of them.' You need sometimes to create that kind of hero in their minds, and it's like an avalanche. They all want to play hockey."

Will hockey surpass college hoops along Tobacco Road? No. It's not going to top baseball in New York, football in Pittsburgh, golf in Florida or raising hell in West Virginia, either. But there's little question now, after years of disputing Commissioner Gary Bettman's cheery forecasts, that the game has grown.

Bettman revealed during his state-of-the-NHL news conference that revenues have grown to record highs in six consecutive years since the lockout. In many ways, the game has slipped back into its clutch-and-grab ways on the ice, but there remains enough speed and skill to keep purists happy while attracting new fans who are spending money.

Funny, but fans in traditional hockey outposts such as Montreal and Toronto -- and Buffalo, too -- like to thumb their noses at hockey south of the Mason-Dixon. But it's not hockey that fails to work in the South. It's bad hockey that doesn't work anywhere. Anyone who was around the Hurricanes, Lightning or Stars during their Stanley Cup runs knows it was as loud in their cities as it was anywhere else.

In the end, fans mostly want to win and be entertained. Ultimately, they're looking for a good time. Raleigh put on a good show over the weekend, and its fans had a blast. Hockey was the reason, if not the excuse.

"The fans were excited, the weather was great and people were tailgating," Hurricanes and all-star captain Eric Staal said. "It was awesome."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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