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Ed Willes: Rubbing elbows with game's greats means something to Canucks All-Stars

Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks speaks to reporters during Thursday's Media Day for the 2020 NHL All-Star Game at Stifel Theatre in St Louis, Miss.  Jacob Markstrom and Quinn Hughes, also of the Canucks, are taking part in the event, too.
Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks speaks to reporters during Thursday's Media Day for the 2020 NHL All-Star Game at Stifel Theatre in St Louis, Miss. Jacob Markstrom and Quinn Hughes, also of the Canucks, are taking part in the event, too.

As part of its continuing and generally futile attempt to make All-Star Weekend interesting, the NHL fiddled around with something called the YoungStars game some years back.

The format lasted from 2002 to 2009 and, if it’s remembered today, it’s remembered mostly for the awkward format it introduced to the hockey world.

Who, for example, can ever forget the very first game when Roberto Luongo, then with the New York Islanders, outduelled the immortal Don Blackburn in a 13-7 win for Team Melrose over Team Fox (don’t ask)?

Or the next year when NHL icon Brian Sutherby carried off MVP honours in his team’s 8-6 win. Or the next year when Colorado goalie Philippe Sauve — at least I think he was a goalie and played for the Avs that season — took home the hardware.

But there’s at least one person who remembers the YoungStars game more fondly — a player who regards it as a significant rite of passage in his development as a pro. Back in 2008, Canucks defenceman Alex Edler suited up for the West, and while he’s a little foggy on the details of the game — the East won 7-6 but his team covered — he remembers what he saw and felt that weekend.

Nick Lidstrom, one of his heroes, was there. So was Daniel Alfredsson along with any number of players Edler admired and respected. Four years earlier the Canucks blue-liner had been playing in Sweden’s third division, where he was as far from an NHL All-Star Game as the Earth is from Pluto.

But there he was in Atlanta and the thought occurred to him: “Maybe, just maybe, I belong here.”

“You look around and you see who you’re with when you’re a rookie, it’s special,” Edler says. “It can only give you confidence and show what kind of player you can be in this league.”

He’s asked if he’s relayed that message to his three teammates who’ll be attending the NHL’s annual fun fest in St. Louis this weekend.

“I haven’t talked about it a lot but I think they know. I had a lot of nerves going into it and they will, too. It’s more about enjoying the whole experience and taking everything in. It should be a positive experience. It was for me.”

The Canucks are sending three players to NHL All-Star Weekend and if the significance of that development escapes you, congratulations. The therapy you’ve taken to erase the last four seasons from your memory bank is working.

But aside from its symbolism for the organization, the all-star appearance represents a significant honour for rookie Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson and Jacob Markstrom. All three are at different stages of their career and all three have taken a different route to St. Louis, but they’re here now. And even if some of the gimmickry around this event is cringeworthy, it means something to all three.

“For sure there’ll be some nerves, but if you want to belong you have to act like you belong,” said Hughes. “You have to go in there and enjoy the experience.”

Hughes’s driver’s licence reveals he’s 20. He just acts like he’s 32.

“It was such a cool experience,” says Pettersson, who becomes a grizzled veteran of two NHL All-Star games this weekend. “People you’ve seen growing up, people you’ve seen on TV and now you’re in the same room. But I wasn’t there to be a fan-boy. I was just appreciating the experience.”

As mentioned, each of the three Canucks are at different stages of their careers and their individual stories are part of the larger narrative connected to this much-improved team. Markstrom has been covered off in this space this week and even if his all-star berth is the result of an undisclosed injury to Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights, his appearance in the showcase registers as a huge positive for the goalie.

Hughes and Pettersson, meanwhile, represent something different. For Pettersson, it’s an affirmation that he’s taking up a place inside the game’s velvet ropes. Last year he was the shiny new thing, the runaway leader among rookies in goals and points.

He would slump over the final two months, but he looks to have taken another step this season. Pettersson is currently 15th in scoring and the best player on a first-place team. There figures to be a lot more All-Star Games in his future.



NHL All-Stars in St. Louis

5 p.m., Enterprise Center , TV: Sportsnet, CBC, NBC

The same is true of Hughes, but this weekend should also serve as a coming-out party for the young defenceman. We’ll spare you the usual complaint about Vancouver’s isolated place in the hockey universe and the difficulty for any Canuck to be recognized beyond the B.C.-Alberta border.

But Hughes is a star in the making who’s involved in a tight race for the Calder with Colorado’s Cale Makar. Exposure to the national media won’t hurt his rookie-of-the-year cause even if he doesn’t see things that way.

“I’m just worried about the day to day,” Hughes says. “I haven’t processed it yet, but as it gets closer it will start to sink in. I think I’ve done a good job of staying in the moment this year.”

Like we said, 20 going on 32.

Brock Boeser, as it happens, went through a similar experience to Hughes two years ago when he was the only Canuck at the All-Star Game in Tampa. Then in his rookie season, Boeser would emerge as the star of the weekend, winning the shooting accuracy competition, before he was named the game’s MVP after scoring twice and adding an assist in the three-on-three tournament.

He was the first rookie to win the MVP since some slug named Mario Lemieux in ’85.

“I’m not going to lie,” Boeser says. “There was a lot of nerves going in. You look around at some of the names and faces and it’s hard not to be intimidated.

“But I relaxed as I got into it and I had a lot of fun. I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about the whole experience.”

After this weekend, his three teammates will tell you the same thing.

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