LOS ANGELES â€” Sidney Crosby only took a few steps into the lobby of his downtown Los Angeles hotel Friday before he was besieged by a bevy of sprinting fans. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain signed what he could and slipped away.
From Crosby and Mario Lemieux to the sneakiest autograph hounds, every part of the hockey world has converged on Hollywood for a weekend of sun, fun and celebration.
Before the game’s best current players face off at Staples Center in the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday, the 100 top players in hockey history are being honoured as part of “The NHL 100” during the league’s centennial. Commissioner Gary Bettman will offer his opinion on the state of a league in transition, with everything from video review to a Las Vegas franchise changing its face as the NHL hits triple digits.
Some of those great players already have strong feelings about the state of hockey.
“The game is in better shape today than it’s ever been,” said Wayne Gretzky, who called Crosby the best player in the current game. “These players, from Auston Matthews to Connor McDavid, they’re just tremendous players. Everybody has a hand in it, and we all feel very privileged that we’re a part of the National Hockey League.”
One of the NHL’s most fundamental recent changes will be front-and-centre Sunday: The 3-on-3 format that has been adopted for regular-season overtimes is back for the All-Star Game, which became a four-division tournament of high-scoring hockey last year.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a little tiring for a defenceman,” said Drew Doughty, the Kings’ All-Star defenceman and Norris Trophy winner. “That’s the way it is in the regular season, too. I can’t even imagine being a goalie in that.”
The NHL is arriving just in time for a gorgeous weekend of beach weather and a welcome respite from the heavy rainstorms that have hit the California coast in recent weeks.
The Fan Fair is already underway down Figueroa Street at the convention centre, welcoming tens of thousands who want to pose with the Stanley Cup, gather alumni autographs or take slap shots while learning about hockey’s lengthy history in Southern California. The Kings, who joined the NHL in the original Second Six expansion, were chosen to host the weekend as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations.
Don’t expect major hockey news out of this party, however. Many fans and players hoped for a swift resolution to the NHL’s quadrennial decision on whether to shut down during the Olympics, but Bettman has indicated that a decision on Pyeongchang is unlikely to be made during the Board of Governors meeting this weekend in LA.
After a celebrity game on Saturday, the skills competition will include the usual festivities, such as events determining the hardest shot and the fastest skater. The NHL has added a Four Line Challenge in which the stars will take increasingly difficult shots from increasingly far away â€” similar to those fan promotions that turn hockey into a version of miniature golf for the chance to win a pickup truck.
The All-Stars haven’t visited LA since 2002, and celebrities will be everywhere: The league recruited nearly anyone in Hollywood with a Canadian passport or any level of hockey fandom to turn out, starting with longtime St. Louis Blues fan Jon Hamm hosting the NHL 100 celebration. The presenters at that ceremony include a trio of Canadian luminaries: Michael J. Fox, Keanu Reeves and Alex Trebek.
Long Beach’s own Snoop Dogg, who has turned out for both the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks over the years, will DJ the skills competition and perform a set. British Columbia’s Taylor Kitsch, Robin Thicke, Tim Robbins and David Boreanaz are playing in the celebrity game.
On Sunday, Nick Jonas, British Columbia’s Carly Rae Jepsen and Fifth Harmony all will perform at the All-Star Game.
The festivities will go on without Columbus coach John Tortorella, who earned the chance to coach the Metropolitan Division team during the Blue Jackets’ remarkable unbeaten run. Tortorella is skipping the game because a pit bull belonging to his son, Nick, is ailing.
But the Blue Jackets will be well-represented with goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, defenceman Seth Jones and forward Cam Atkinson, a last-minute addition after Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin dropped out.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregbeacham
Greg Beacham, The Associated Press