ATLANTA - The NHL all-star game is getting a facelift this season. That's because 15 first-time all-stars will take the ice Sunday evening for the 56th staging of the classic (6 p.m. ET).
"I think you're seeing a little bit of a changing of the guard," first-time all-star Jason Spezza of the Ottawa Senators said on the eve of the game. "A lot of younger guys got a chance to play after the lockout and got a good opportunity."
First the all-stars warmed up with the skills competition Saturday night. But the game is what the players were really excited about.
Spezza is joined on the Eastern Conference team by fellow first-timers Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers, Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens, Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders and Tim Thomas of the Bruins.
Anaheim Ducks linesmates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perrey lead the first-time pack on the Western side, joined by Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, Shawn Horcoff of the Edmonton Oilers, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, Mike Ribeiro of the Dallas Stars and Manny Legace of the St. Louis Blues.
"Last year was the second time I came to the all-star game and I was surprised how young the players were," said centre Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "It's a young stars' league. You look at (Sidney) Crosby, (Alex) Ovechkin, Malkin. And I think it's great for the league. It's great for marketing. I think the last few years it's been really going great that way. ...
"I think people want to watch young guys, the 20-somethings show what they can do on the ice. I think it's exciting."
Even the old goats are getting a kick out of it. Five-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings, playing in his 10th NHL all-star game, says he was having a blast this weekend.
"I still enjoy coming to these games," the 37-year-old Swede said Saturday. "It's still fun being part of this weekend. I've got my two little kids here this week and they've had a chance to meet some of the newer, younger players coming into the league. That's been real enjoyable."
The real question with this new generation of NHL stars is whether they'll be able to more comfortably help market the game. Hockey players, generally, are humble and shy and hate being singled out ahead of the team. It's what is both so good and yet frustrating about hockey players. Athletes in other sports are more outspoken and more entertaining.
"It's something that is a little bit different in hockey," said Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, the poster boy for being about the nicest guy around and yet reluctant to say anything too controversial. "I think you look at some other sports which there's more talking in the media and build-up to games. Some of it can be enjoyable, but for whatever reason in hockey, I think it's slowly changing, a little bit since I've been in the league.
"It's starting to change and people are starting to step out a little bit more, and I think it's good for hockey. We're still team-first, but you can still within that have a lot of different personalities."
And yet moments later, with Iginla sharing the podium with Lecavalier, the old NHL shyness came out again. When asked who they thought won the fight both players had in the 2004 Stanley Cup final, they almost blushed.
"I don't know," said Lecavalier.
"It was a draw," said Iginla.
"Yeah," Lecavalier said with a laugh.