Share this article

print logo

Next wave arrives ahead of schedule

DALLAS -- Bill Guerin has been around the game long enough and has accomplished enough that he shouldn't be demure when it comes to hockey. The St. Louis Blues winger is 36 years old, has won a Stanley Cup, has played in the Olympics and was an All-Star game MVP.

Yet when he considers the fresh-faced talent that will surround him in his fourth All-Star game Wednesday night in American Airlines Center, he turns into a blushing fan. Guerin expressed nary a shred of guilt for hiding behind his 5-year-old Liam when it came to collecting souvenirs from an event that will symbolize the arrival of the NHL's great generation.

"I'll have my son down with me, so I'm sure I'll send him over for autographs," Guerin said. "I'll have him get two, one for him and one for me."

No longer considered the next wave of talent, young idols such as Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Eric Staal and Dion Phaneuf have taken over the game. They are among 20 first-time All-Stars, a list that includes Buffalo Sabres representatives Daniel Briere, Brian Campbell and Ryan Miller.

The group doesn't feature emerging superstar Evgeni Malkin, a year older than Crosby but assigned to anchor tonight's YoungStars Game even though he deserves to be playing with the big boys . . . uh, other kids.

"They're the great players now, never mind the future," Guerin said. "They're the ones that are going to be carrying the torch for a long time.

This year's All-Star Game is a lot more Justin Timberlake and a lot less Engelbert Humperdinck.

Gone are the weathered, crow-footed faces fans grew accustomed to watching in the All-Star Game. There will be no Jeremy Roenick, no Keith Tkachuk, no Doug Weight, no Mike Modano, no Rob Blake -- not even Jaromir Jagr, although that omission is borderline obscene.

All-Star celebrations had turned into annual reunions of the same old names.

"They're building their own reunion right now," said New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, playing in his ninth All-Star Game. "These guys will see each other for the next 10 years."

The NHL's new band of superstars is bringing sexy back to the ice. They're hip. They're charismatic. They're marketable. They're with it.

But, most of all, they're darn good.

"It was like overnight," Guerin said. "Those guys just came into the league and it was all just from how they played. They lived up to every bit of hype there ever was.

"Guys can't play forever. There's got to be that new wave, and we've got it now. They're going to be the great players for the next 20 years. They're so exciting to watch. They carry themselves with a lot of class. They handle the pressure great. It's just good to see. It's good for our sport."

Crosby and Ovechkin represent the next great rivalry in sports and should battle for many years to come. Crosby is only 19 years old, but the Pittsburgh Penguins center leads the NHL in scoring. Ovechkin, 21, could be known as Russia's greatest export before he's through -- even though he has failed to generate much local interest in the Washington Capitals.

Many claim they'll have a similar impact as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had or maybe Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

"I think we have a strong group of players," Crosby said. "I don't think it's up to one or two guys."

One could have predicted an upsurge of young talent after the NHL lost the 2004-05 season to the lockout. An entire class of rookies, including Sabres winger Thomas Vanek, was stuck skating in the AHL, played another season in juniors or remained overseas.

When play resumed last season, the equivalent of two rookie classes slipped into the NHL.

But adjustments to the game's infrastructure hastened the transformation from a league based on veteran stars to one that highlighted unlimited potential.

New York Rangers winger Brendan Shanahan, an eight-time All-Star, had a role in the phenomenon. As an influential voice during the lockout, Shanahan helped orchestrate radical changes that led to a more liberalized style of play. Referees started calling games more tightly. Rule changes emphasized skill.

"I thought I was going to run myself out of the game because clutching and grabbing was fine by me," Shanahan said. "It worked for me lining up against a guy like Danny Briere. It was an equalizer for me."

The game was retooled to reward the swift and the young. While Shanahan adjusted and a few other veterans were reinvigorated by newfound offensive freedom -- Teemu Selanne was on the brink of retirement two years ago, but will make his 10th All-Star appearance Wednesday -- many of their contemporaries couldn't keep up and were forced into marginal roles or straight out of the game.

"First- and second-year players have shown they're elite players in this league," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who will lead the Eastern Conference. "I think you saw the changeover from the post-lockout, where their speed and skill just kills now. These players have dominated the game, made the game exciting and made it a lot more dramatic than it was in the past."

Western Conference captain Joe Sakic is an All-Star fossil at 37 years old. The Colorado Avalanche center, about to make his 12th appearance, isn't too rooted in the past not to appreciate what's transpiring.

"The young players are amazing to watch out there," Sakic said. " . . . I'm just fortunate to still be a part of this right now."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment