San Jose, CA
Technically speaking, defenseman Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars fell and slammed into the side boards in the fastest skater challenge. The 19-year-old defenseman—taken third overall by the Stars in the 2017 NHL Entry draft—is the youngest of the 2019 NHL All Stars.
However, certainly the most notable young stars in the game, Connor McDavid (22) and Auston Matthews (21) headlined on Friday night. McDavid won the fastest skater for the third year in a row. While Matthews brought the house down prior to his accuracy-shooting attempt when he pulled off his blue Maple Leafs jersey and unveiled a white Leafs jersey with the name Marleau on the back.
The San Jose crowd burst into approval upon seeing the Marleau sweater. Patrick Marleau scored over 500 goals for the Sharks, playing over 19 seasons with the club before becoming a father-like figure for Matthews and Mitch Marner in Toronto.
“Last night I was at dinner with my family and just kind of thought about doing it,” remarked Matthews in his post-skills media scrum. “They were able to make up a jersey quick this morning and have it ready for me when I went out there. He does so much for myself and the team beyond his amazing abilities on the ice, just the kind of person he is and the way he treats people is second to none.”
Matthews went on to joke that all the cheering from the crowd made him so nervous that he forgot there were five targets to shoot at.
Perhaps a reminder, that despite all his fame, Matthews is still just 21-years old. What were any of us regular folk doing when we were 21? Paying homage to a legendary future hall-of-famer in front of the fans who adore him? Probably not.
Speaking of Marleau, the former Shark made his NHL debut roughly eight months after the last time the All Star Game was in San Jose. Until this weekend, the last time the All Star Game was played in the Bay Area was January 18, 1997. Marleau made his debut on Oct. 1, 1997. That debut came less than three weeks after his 18th birthday. Marleau made the Sharks in his very first season after being drafted 2nd overall at the 1997 draft, behind only some guy named Joe Thornton.
In that 1997 All Star Game in San Jose, the most notable memory for most fans, and certainly for Sharks fans, was when then Shark Owen Nolan called his shot. Just prior to his hat-trick goal, Nolan pointed to the top-corner, glove side on goaltender Dominik Hasek moments before snapping a wrister exactly in that spot, a bar-down snipe.
That iconic moment helped spark a generation of Sharks fans. Nolan went on to become the team captain from 1998-2003. Kids in neighborhoods around San Jose often imitated Nolan’s shot call while playing street hockey. Nolan’s tenure as captain quickly parlayed into Marleau’s tenure as captain (2004-2009). Over the years now, with their Junior Sharks program and various adult leagues, the Sharks have turned a non-hockey market into a huge hockey market. Those kids who imitated Nolan in the streets are now full-grown adults playing in the dozens of levels of beer league divisions at the Sharks’ practice facility. Simply stated, this fan base cares. They care a lot.
At the Skills Competition on Friday, Sharks fans in attendance predictably booed Drew Doughty of the LA Kings and John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks. You know, the guys from the California rivals. Those were obvious choices.
But for those who might not yet be aware of how passionate a fan base the Sharks have, it is important to note the thunderous boos for two Eastern Conference players. Upon introductions on Friday, both Toronto’s John Tavares and Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, were loudly booed by the crowd. Why, you ask?
Letang was a notable thorn in the Sharks’ side in the 2016 Stanley Cup final, the first time this fan base had seen their team reach the final. Letang and the Penguins won that series and clinched the final game in San Jose.
Tavares on the other hand, was considering San Jose as one of his possible landing spots this summer before signing in Toronto. Sharks fans almost certainly would not be cheering on Erik Karlsson had Tavares signed in San Jose, but that matters not. San Jose fans were invested this summer in the Tavares sweepstakes and they let it be known they are still a bit bitter that they didn’t get the final rose.
But back to the original topic at hand, the old guys and young guys shone brightest at the skills. While McDavid and Matthews led the way for the young guys, it was conversely, Henrik Lundqvist, the elder statesman of the All Stars at 36, who won the shootout saves challenge. The career-long Rangers goalie made 12 consecutive saves, edging out Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy’s eight stops.
Despite his Rangers only playing once in San Jose each season, Lundqvist spoke at length about how much he enjoys coming to the Bay Area and playing in the atmosphere created by Sharks fans.
“It’s fun coming in here even though you know it’s one of the toughest places to play,” chimed the King. “They have a good team, it’s an intense building to play in, great atmosphere. You have to be on your toes every time you walk into this building and I love that challenge. I enjoy coming here. The fact we only come here once a year makes it special, but also the environment here coming into this building. You come in here and the fans are not on your side, for sure. That’s the fun part about playing the game when you’re in a building where you can feel that it matters to people.”