While other leagues like the NBA have capitalized on their superstars and their individuals, hockey players can feel like the plain croutons in the American sports salad. In recent years, certain players like Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban have broken the rigid hockey mold and shown their personality and individualism.
The 2018 All Star Weekend presented an opportunity to showcase all the personality that exists in the NHL, and it did not disappoint.
“Well you look at other sports and the NBA has become a superstar league,” Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler said at media day on Saturday. “You don’t cheer for the Cleveland Cavaliers anymore, you cheer for LeBron James. I think it’s good to see some of the faces, see some of the talent that our league has because it’s pretty incredible some of the things these guys can do. I think that’s what fans want to see. They love the team concept and they love cheering for their teams, but to see some of the individuals and superstars that we have showcase what they can do I think is pretty cool.”
“That’s one of the benefits and objectives of an All Star game is to expose your stars to a broader audience,” Daly said. “We’re thrilled with the selections for the All Star game and I think we have great representatives from all of the different divisions. This is one of the years where you can go top-to-bottom of the All Star lineup and say that these guys are all All Stars. We’re really pleased with both the selections and the turnout.”
Throughout the weekend, players had the chance to cut loose and have fun. Even in media availabilities, players were smiling and joking perhaps a bit more than they usually would.
According to Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, that happens because the subject matter is not just “hockey, hockey, hockey.”
“I think this is one of the few times that you get to talk about different things other than your everyday life in your club team,” Karlsson said. “I think it’s good. It brings you out of your comfort zone a little bit and some guys enjoy it more than others, but overall I think that it’s something that we don’t get to do a lot and talk about things that we actually care about that’s not hockey as well. I think it’s huge and it makes it a little bit more fun for everybody.”
For Karlsson, apparently, his comfort zone does not include dressing up as a pirate, because that’s just what he did this weekend. He and fellow Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman entered Amalie Arena on Saturday night dresses as pirates as a nod to Tampa’s Gasparilla festival taking place that day.
— NHL (@NHL) January 27, 2018
Karlsson also wore the pirate hat on the ice for warmups ahead of the Skills Competition on Saturday.
Even if you’re not dressing up as a pirate, this kind of weekend can’t help but bring out the fun side in any player.
“You’re kind of forced into it, really,” Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price said. “You get kind of cornered in some of these kinds of situations, but it’s good to see some guys kind of come out of their shell a little bit and socialize with guys that otherwise they wouldn’t.”
There were plenty of other moments of pure personality throughout the weekend. During the Skills Competition, Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury took his turn in the Save Streak contest while Frozen’s “Let it Go” blared in the background. The music seemed to work for him, as he won the contest with 14 straight saves.
During the All Star Game on Sunday, Subban showed why he is still one of the most dynamic personalities in the league with an emphatic celebration of a goal.
— RMNB (@russianmachine) January 28, 2018
In addition, Subban chose the Central Division goal song for the evening, selecting 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” perhaps a unique choice for hockey. Subban gave credit to the league for allowing players to break out of their shell on a weekend like this.
“We’re just having fun,” he said at media day. “I think the NHL’s done a good job of making the players feel more comfortable coming to these events. That’s the most important thing, because when you’re comfortable, that’s when you can just be yourself and have fun. Kids that come want to see guys like Connor McDavid and Crosby and Kane and watch them put on a show. The more you can make those players feel comfortable, the greater the show is going to be in my opinion. I think the NHL has done a pretty good job of that over the last couple of years.”
— P.K. Subban (@PKSubban1) January 29, 2018
Even certain players that don’t tend to show flashy personality got in on the fun. After a surprising video review overturned an Atlantic Division goal during the All Star Game, Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel scored and made sure everybody knew this one would count, mimicking Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews’ celebration from earlier in the week.
Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews mimicking the Matthews goal signal celebration is great pic.twitter.com/TtPsyp0tcV
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) January 28, 2018
San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns doesn’t necessarily think this weekend artificially creates personality in players. Rather, it brings out some personalities that might remain dormant during a regular season game.
“I don’t know if its more than normal,” he said. “You’re still here to represent your team. It’s fun. I think you just kind of see more guys relax a little bit. It’s a little different. You can enjoy yourself, you’re with your family, you’re kind of trying to have other people enjoy it a little more than a game when it’s just business. I think guys have pretty good personalities during the year too. You’ve just got to be a little bit more aware of what you’re saying, you guys are trying to get us in trouble all the time (laughs).”
So, how can the NHL continue to benefit from these personalities throughout the season? One idea proposed by a reporter would be to add a “Players Weekend” similar to the MLB concept in which players were allowed to wear a nickname on the back of their jersey for one weekend this past season.
Wheeler is a fan of that idea.
“I don’t know what I would do personally, but I think that would be cool,” he said. “I think hockey could use a little bit of flavor like that. We’re so stuck in being good guys and being about the team and stuff like that that I think we lose a little bit. That stuff’s kind of cool nowadays. The NBA has really struck on that, and like you said, baseball and even football does the cleats all the time now.”
Given the realities of the sports marketplace, Wheeler knows that the NHL has the chance to capitalize on as many opportunities as possible to show that they have superstars, and fun ones at that.
“I think fans love that stuff, he said. “I think they love to get to know players’ personalities, what they’re into outside of hockey and I think that’s really compelling for people.”