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All-Star weekend is showcase ; NHL's best gather to display skills

Terry Pegula's presentation to the NHL executive committee this morning is the biggest news in what otherwise will be a quiet All-Star weekend, at least from a Buffalo perspective.

The Sabres' lone representative this weekend is winger Tyler Ennis, who will compete in the SuperSkills competition tonight in RBC Center in Raleigh.

Ennis figured he would mosey through the airport Friday without much trouble considering he's a rookie from Buffalo who wasn't part of the main event. He was stopped by about 20 autograph hounds minutes after stepping off the plane.

"It's cool," Ennis said. "It's pretty exciting to be here. I didn't really expect anyone to recognize me. I thought I could just fly under the radar. I don't know too many guys here, but it should be fun to meet them and make some friends."

Chicago Blackhawks winger and South Buffalo native Patrick Kane is set to add a second All-Star Game to a resume that also includes the Olympics and Stanley Cup. He also was helping Detroit Red Wings center and captain Nicklas Lidstrom pick one of the two teams in the game Sunday.

The All-Star Game is usually more about a weekend celebrating the NHL than the actual contest itself. The all-star game in hockey, more than any other sport, is a great departure from what fans are accustomed to watching during the regular season. It has evolved into a shinny showcase for skill without the aggression typically required to win.

Long gone is the Prince of Wales-Campbell Conference matchup in which the best players in the league would play a competitive game for conference superiority. In fact, there's a very good chance fans will not see a single body check of consequence when the puck is dropped at 4 p.m. Sunday.

"I'm just hoping to make a few saves," said Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward, who will be playing before his home fans. "Typically, this game isn't goaltender friendly."

The lack of competitiveness (see: boring) in the game year after year was one reason the NHL has tried to spice up the format. North American players competed against those from Europe for a few years. They switched back to East vs. West before shifting to designated team captains picking teams this year.

Carolina center Eric Staal is picking the other team.

"I like the format," Lidstrom said. "It's something new, something different. I like that the players had some input, too, with who we're playing with and playing against. Now, you have a chance to play with some guys on the other side."

If nothing else, it gave reason for Versus, Canadian-based TSN and French-speaking RDS to turn on their cameras for 90 minutes, giving hockey more exposure for what amounted to finding out who would be the last kid picked in gym class. What's next, throwing their sticks in a pile like they did back on the frozen ponds?

Anything is possible.

Regardless, the All-Star Game this year does come with plenty of events that keep diehard fans interested while selling the game. Hockey was barely on the sports radar in college hoops heaven along Tobacco Road before the Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolina in 1997-98 and eventually settled in Raleigh.

The game remains a secondary sport in the Research Triangle, but interest has grown with the 'Canes winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 -- remember, Sabres fans? -- and hockey taking hold with speed junkies of a younger generation that are searching for high-paced action and continuous stimulation.

Sunday will mark the first time in history the All-Star Game will be held in a college facility. RBC Center is home to North Carolina State basketball and sits about a mile from campus. The game is in Ottawa next year, leaving Anaheim, Columbus, Nashville and Phoenix as the only teams in the NHL to not host the event.

"We're doing everything we can to keep this game fresh and reach out to new fans," Lightning winger Martin St. Louis said. "Now, everybody is talking about it, fans wondering what was going to happen, who would be on who's team, teammates split up, [the Sedin] brothers split up. It's good for the game."

The SuperSkills competition, which has been a hit in recent years, is set for 7 p.m. today. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is scheduled to hold a news conference an hour before the SuperSkills in what basically will be his state-of-the-game address. He's certain to be asked questions about the Sabres' sale.

Pegula isn't expected to speak publicly about the sale until the transaction is completed. He could break his silence in the next few weeks, if not sooner.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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