RALEIGH, N.C. – One by one, the players heard their names called, rose from their seats, pulled on their sweaters and joined their teams on stage – all of the goaltenders, all of the defensemen, all of the forwards, all of the All-Stars.
All but two.
Paul Stastny(notes) of the Colorado Avalanche and Phil Kessel(notes) of the Toronto Maple Leafs remained stuck in their folding chairs, underneath the klieg lights and in front of the TV cameras, surrounded by the fans and the media and their peers, unpicked.
The NHL was holding its first Fantasy Draft on Friday night, with the captains of each team selecting the lineups for Sunday’s All-Star Game. That meant someone would have to go last.
Who was it going to be?
Kessel could only smile as he sat there all by himself, while the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin(notes) snapped a picture of him with a BlackBerry and his own phone blew up with teasing text messages from his Toronto teammates.
“They just gave me little bombs,” Kessel said. “They’re all happy for me.”
There was nothing to be unhappy about.
After the NFL draft every year, the last pick, Mr. Irrelevant, is celebrated and showered with gifts for a week by a group in Southern California that decided to do something nice for someone for no reason.
Kessel didn’t walk away empty-handed, either. The last pick in the NHL’s Fantasy Draft was consoled with a new car – a Honda CRX – and $20,000 to donate to his favorite charity. If anyone should have been sad, it was Stastny, Mr. Second-To-Last. Kessel said he would drive the car. Having overcome testicular cancer as a rookie with the Boston Bruins in 2006-07, he will use the cash to fight cancer.
“Obviously a tough time in my life,” Kessel said, “but made me stronger.”
Especially in light of that, this was all in good fun.
The All-Star Game had grown so stale that some within the NHL talked about scrapping it, especially now that the Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game, has become such a showcase.
Brendan Shanahan(notes), an all-star player turned executive, led the charge to enliven it. The idea was to engage the players by putting the game in their hands, allowing them to choose sides like they would on the pond. Call it Shanny’s shinny.
A gimmick? Sure. But the All-Star Game is a gimmick no matter the format – all-stars vs. the Stanley Cup champions, East vs. West, North America vs. the World – and no one was taking it too seriously, anyway. Why start now? Why not try something new?
Why not tap into the fantasy sports craze and create a new TV show out of it, too? As the draft progressed Friday night, the players tried to ham it up for the cameras, at least as much as hockey players do. (Can you imagine NFL players? Chad Ochocinco or Johnson or whatever-his-name-is-now doing something like this? Mel Kiper?)
There was some almost-trash talk and faux toughness.
After the Vancouver Canucks’ Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes) were separated and put on opposing teams for the first time in their lives, Henrik said: “Team Lidstrom got the best twin, that’s for sure.”
After the New York Rangers’ Marc Staal(notes) acted upset that brother Eric hadn’t drafted him yet – saying “we’re blood” and that he wouldn’t buy him Christmas and birthday presents anymore and their mother would be mad – Eric drafted the Rangers’ … wait for it … Henrik Lundqvist(notes). (Eric drafted Marc soon afterwards.)
Shanahan said there was some concern about leaving someone for last. The NHL considered ways of avoiding potential embarrassment. But the players told the league they didn’t mind – and that was especially true when they learned about the consolation prize.
Doing it this way added another element to the show Friday night, and it gave the fans another player for whom to root on Sunday.
The All-Star Game always has been a frozen version of Lake Wobegon, where all the players are strong, all the guys are good looking and all the stars are above average. Now, we actually have an underdog, even if Kessel said he wouldn’t use any perceived slight as motivation to win the Most Valuable Player award.
“It’s not a big deal for me,” Kessel said. “Maybe the last half of the season, we play (the all-star captains’ teams). Hopefully I score a couple times on those guys. No, I’m just kidding.”
Kessel was a first-round pick, drafted fifth overall by the Bruins in 2006. He was first-rate enough – at least to Leafs general manager Brian Burke – to be acquired from the Bruins in September of 2009 for two first-round picks and a second-rounder. He was part of a United States team that finished second at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He ranks second on the Leafs in goals (19) and third in points (34).
“When I was a kid, I would never have dreamed of being here,” Kessel said. “Honestly, it doesn’t matter. This is an All-Star Game, right? You’re just happy to be here. That means you’re doing pretty well, I guess, right?”
Last, but not least.