As frustrating as the ongoing NHL lockout has been, the silver lining - and gosh darn it, I'm going to try and find one - is that all this free time has allowed the players to put together various exhibition hockey games to raise money for charity. The latest, dubbed "Operation Hat Trick", took place at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night in front of a raucous, largely Philadelphia- and New York-based contingent of fans, with all proceeds going to relief efforts from Superstorm Sandy.
This night of ice hockey at the beach featured plenty of strange bedfellows, with once-rival players lining up on the same side while (relative) peace existed among rival fans in the stands - all uniting behind a great cause. The rosters were packed with current and former Rangers and Flyers, residents of the NY/NJ area (like the Caps' own John Carlson, a Jersey native) and NHLers just looking to help out and have a good time. And while Team Hartnell eventually fell to Team Richards by a lopsided score of 10-6, there were no losers Saturday night.
(Well... on the ice, at least. I can't vouch for how the players did once released onto the casino floor.)
Here are 10 more slightly scattered thoughts on a great night on the boardwalk:
- Like any game that is essentially an All-Star Game (even one that features Steve Eminger), the goalies are generally just there for show - they're not really expected to put up good numbers. No one informed Henrik Lundqvist of this fact, apparently, as he turned aside all twenty-three shots faced in the opening frame to stonewall Team Hartnell. The shutout would be gone by early in the second and he eventually ceded six goals, but doing so on 63 shots? Not bad. Someone should really give that guy an NHL gig...
- Of course the flip side of that story was happening at the other end of the ice, with Martin Brodeur staking Team Richards to a four-goal lead early on. Naturally the best part of this was that, as Team Hartnell's goalie, Brodeur was essentially playing for the Flyers... and their fans. One would imagine it was a struggle for them to not join in when their Ranger counterparts started that familiar taunting refrain of "Maaaarty....Maaaaarty".
- One thing that was evident throughout the game was the fact that, regardless of the score, the players were clearly having a blast - something that usually makes up for the fact that the quality of hockey may not be the best. Whether it was a member of Team Hartnell chirping Lundqvist after yet another great save or linemates from Team Richards breaking out some dance moves in celebration of a goal, this game was a pointed reminder that, at the end of the day, this is a game. It should be fun.
- Kerry Fraser was charged with officiating duties in this one and overall had a fairly quiet evening, but his best moment came when he prevented Arron Asham and Daniel Carcillo from engaging in a staged fight and then hilariously issued each of them a penalty shot instead. Asham vs. Brodeur and Carcillo vs. Lundqvist? Clash of the titans, for sure, but the goalies managed to turn aside both attempts... to the surprise of absolutely no one.
- How about the Caps' own John Carlson? It wasn't the easiest of evenings for him, given the unenviable task of shutting down the hefty firepower on Team Richards (...to say nothing of former teammate Jeff Halpern) but he did make some nice plays in his own end and got to skate alongside pretty much everyone from Braydon Coburn to PK Subban. And he's rocking a pretty decent flow these days, which... is something.
- One of the bigger stories to come out of this game - aside from the game itself - was the response of the fans, both good and bad. From start to finish the stands rang out with everything from "We want hockey" to "Fire Bettman" (and at one point a pretty loud "Crosby Sucks!"... ah, Atlantic Division, never change). And while it certainly plays into the owners' belief that the fans are too passionate to stay away, and while it did kind of take away from the good feelings and charitable aura of the evening, there was also something kind of moving about it, the very organic nature of a crowd united despite wearing different jerseys and different allegiances. Give us our damn hockey back.
- Could there have been a bigger troll than James Neal? The guy skates out in front of 11,000 fans, most of whom hate him and his entire team, and has the gall to score a hat trick (and add an assist). Gutsy.
- Knowing as we do that Steven Stamkos is a very talented goalscorer (and seeing the product of that talent firsthand on numerous occasions against the Caps), I'm not ashamed to say I took some small amount of glee in his seeming inability to crack Henrik Lundqvist - despite at least five or six great scoring chances. Schadenfreude is a beautiful thing, kids, and I choose to embrace it.
- Ending a game with a stick salute to the crowd is always a nice touch, but this one seemed especially poignant and lasted a good five minutes - as it should have. This was all about the fans, as the salute capped off an evening that also saw jerseys and markers sailing over the glass for autographs throughout the game (with Team Hartnell "coach" Rick Tocchet showing off his mad Sharpie-grabbing skills on more than one occasion).
- You didn't have to search too hard for hockey long after leaving the arena, as throughout the night one could find hockey jerseys (and at times hockey players themselves) scattered around the casino floors, lingering in bars, walking the streets of the city. It was both surreal and wonderful.
It wasn't the greatest hockey. There was no hitting, few icings, a couple of penalties that became penalty shots and 16 goals scored between the two teams. But when all was said and done, none of that mattered - what did matter was that nearly 11,000 people filled Boardwalk Hall to watch their heroes play, that said heroes put on quite a show and that some people in need got a little extra help.
And at the end of the night, players and fans saluted one another in the hope that this won't be the last hockey we see this year.
[Check out the gallery below for more grainy, lousy cell phone quality pics of Saturday's event.]