Monday, January 20, 2014

Seeing Stars

There are certain memories a hockey fan will never forget.

Most of us can remember key games our favourite team participated in and were over-the-moon if they involved a Stanley Cup championship.

One hockey event I enjoyed seeing each year was the NHL All-Star Game. Growing up in an era when the National Hockey League received limited television exposure, the All-Star contest was a welcomed addition.

In my memory bank, thoughts emerge from viewing All-Star clashes after the league expanded in 1967-68. As I recall, the games always occurred in mid January and were scheduled for a weeknight. This led to intense negotiations concerning my bedtime. A little give-and-take ultimately resulted in a treaty favourable to both sides.

The elite gathering of hockey's best had a different feel than a regular season contest. It was unique in every aspect. There were line combinations and defensive pairings one could only dream of seeing on any given night in an NHL barn. Mortal enemies worked together instead of going after one another.

Unlike recent All-Star tilts, where the score sheet is plastered with goals and assists, the early post-expansion were low scoring affairs.

I recall one year, 1971, when only 3 goals were scored.

On January 19, 1971, the West squad defeated the East 2-1 at Boston Garden. The amazing part being that all the scoring took place in the first period. After inspecting the box score, which included the East-West line-ups, one can only shake their head trying to figure out a reason for the lack of offensive production.

Somehow, the goaltending duo of Tony Esposito and Ernie Wakely, the last line of defence for the West, managed to limit their opponent to one goal. This included facing a potentially wicked power play with Phil Esposito, Gordie Howe and Frank Mahovlich up front, and Bobby Orr joined by J.C. Tremblay on the blueline.

St. Louis goalie, Ernie Wakely, offered an explaination as to why things didn't jell for the attacking units.

"What can anyone expect when players come together for the first time without practice," said Wakely.

New York Ranger goalie, Eddie Giacomin, who gave up goals by Chico Maki and Bobby Hull, expected more scoring punch from his teammates.

",,,I thought with the guys on our team they might have bailed me out by scoring more," Giacomin told reporters in his post-game comments,

Reflecting on the special team unit mentioned earlier, Phil Esposito stated, "we were like strangers in the night."

Bobby Hull, no stranger to having an opposing player shadow his every move, spoke of the need to pay attention to defensive responsibilities.

"This was likely the tightest-checking of all the All-Star Games," observed The Golden Jet. "Of course, you have to - it's a pretty potent punch we were facing."

For a youngster glued to the television screen, the lack of firepower had no impact. The anticipation leading up to the opening face off provided enough fuel to stick with it until the final whistle. There were no blindside hits or obstacles to contend with.

The night sky sparkled and I was seeing stars.

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