MONTREAL - Nothing against Atlanta or Florida or the other NHL teams in the Sun Belt, but an All-Star game up north is really unlike any in a nontraditional hockey market.
And the differences are evident before arriving planes touch down on Canadian soil. Instead of seeing multiple baseball diamonds across vast fields below, one can’t help but notice kids and adults bundled up on outdoor rinks with a game of shinny in progress.
The Montreal Canadiens are the proud hosts of this year’s All-Star festivities, which will culminate with the game tonight.
Already the owner of a record 24 Stanley Cup titles, hockey’s version of the New York Yankees is in the middle of celebrating its 100th season.
Not even temperatures dropping well below zero during a bitterly cold weekend prevented the Bell Centre from being packed to capacity before 10 a.m. Saturday for Eastern and Western conferences’ practices.
As NBA star Allen Iverson famously said, “We’re in here talking about practice. Not a game, we’re talking about practice.”
“For me it’s just special,” said Dallas Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas, who began his NHL career with the Canadiens. “Montreal is a team with a lot of history.
“Me being here in Montreal, being a kid from Sherbrooke, which is not too far from here, I grew up as a Montreal Canadiens fan. Everything is there to make it a perfect weekend.”
For players who have roots in Montreal or in nearby areas within the province of Quebec, this All-Star game trumps the others.
The city hasn’t hosted the game since 1993, when it took place just three days after Gary Bettman took over as NHL commissioner. The local players already had the honor of being picked as an All-Star, but to dress for the game on the rink of the team many of them were raised to love, the feelings are often too strong to put into words.
Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, a Montreal native, almost missed his chance to play in front of dozens of family members and friends when a groin injury in November forced him to sit out 24 games.
He returned to action just over a week ago and proved he was fit enough to head home for this showcase.
If the game was somewhere else, Luongo likely would have skipped it, as fellow banged-up stars such as Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings are doing.
“It played into it a lot,” Luongo said. “I’m sure the fact that I’ll be able to play here in my hometown really affected whether I was going to be here or not.
“I didn’t know if I would be back healthy, playing before the All-Star game. Once I was able to get back playing for the team a week and a half ago, if everything went well, I would play in the game.”
Alex Kovalev didn’t have to travel far — he currently plays for the Canadiens. His extra honor, beyond playing front of adoring fans, is to wear the captain’s C for the East squad.
It’s a distinction that hadn’t been bestowed on a Montreal player in the All-Star game since Hall of Famer Larry Robinson, and one Kovalev doesn’t even hold for the Canadiens, who are captained by Saku Koivu.
The choice made perfect sense, though, especially since Kovalev and Canadiens teammates goalie Carey Price and defensemen Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek are all in the East starting lineup.
“It’s something you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” Kovalev said. “You’ve seen so many things about the tradition and the history of this team. It’s always great to have an All-Star game in Montreal.
“People are so passionate, compared to other cities, about hockey. ... Every game is like a playoff atmosphere, so that tells you a lot.”