It was as if all their hockey cards had come to life, that the faces on posters that had lined the walls of NHL All Stars' childhood bedrooms were smiling at them again, this time for real, Sunday at Staples Center.
Making a graceful nod to its history, the NHL had brought to the All-Star Game many of the players honored at a gala Friday as the top 100 of the league's first 100 years. If some of the honorees limped along the black carpet that had been rolled onto the ice before the first of Sunday's three minigames, if many had grayer hair than in the photos of them displayed on the scoreboard, all basked in the applause from the sellout crowd and seemed to stand taller and smile more proudly.
When the current stars were introduced, they skated down the row of former players and fist-bumped each of their elders, creating a tentative bond where one might not have existed before. That relationship was cemented when the former and present players formed parallel lines and faced off against each other, a perfect moment that will outlive most other memories generated by the Metropolitan division's 4-3 victory.
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, two-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning Norris trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, became a kid again when he approached Nicklas Lidstrom, the smooth-skating Swede who won the Norris seven times and the Cup four times with the Detroit Red Wings. Though the moment didn't last long, Doughty managed to say a few words of respect to Hall of Famer Lidstrom.
"Just that he was an idol of mine for a long time and I loved watching him play and it was just an honor to meet him," Doughty said of their conversation. "That was a special moment for me."
The fist-bump and faceoff had the same effect on New York Islanders forward John Tavares of the Metropolitan squad. He acknowledged feeling chills, and not from the temperature on the ice.
"Standing across afterward and looking at them as the anthems were going, guys you looked up to, guys I read about and my parents would talk about all the time, it was pretty cool," Tavares said. "It was really something special to have all that talent on the ice and just to meet those guys and see their excitement and certainly the great impacts they made on the game of hockey and all of us that are here today."
It's difficult to stage a meaningful All Star game in any sport, but it might be toughest to present an entertaining product at hockey's mid-season event. There's no hitting and rarely any penalties—none were called Sunday — and without physicality or intensity the games can become skating exhibitions interrupted by a bits of brilliant stickhandling or clever shots.
The NHL, since going to the three-on-three, minigame format last season, has done about as good a job as possible to create excitement. Adding a $1 million winner-take-all prize for the winning team certainly ramps up the passion in the finale, though it hasn't inspired anything close to defensive diligence in those first two games.
"I didn't want double digits, to lose. I was sort of hoping that wouldn't happen," said Central division and Minnesota Wild Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team absorbed a 10-3 loss at the hands of the Pacific division in the first game.
"The biggest thing is if you look at last year, the first game ended 9-6 and then it went to 1-0 [in the finale]. They got a little serious. To me the whole three-on-three concept when you're really serious is really exciting. And that's when you hope all the potential hockey fans watch because that's really good stuff."
Washington Capitals and Metropolitan goaltender Braden Holtby provided the ultimate compliment in evaluating the finale. "It felt more like a regular-season three-on-three, for sure," he said. "There was more zone play. It was fun."
Some feats stood out from the blur of goals. The Kings' and Ducks' delegates did well. Sidney Crosby scored his first All Star goal in only his second All-Star appearance, and NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid — touted as the next Crosby even as Crosby continues to shine — scored in his All Star debut.
But it was the happy intersection of past and present that made this day and this weekend worthwhile. At some future NHL anniversary celebration Crosby and McDavid might be on the other side of a fist-bump line, welcoming a younger generation into their fraternity. When the game needs it most, a great player somehow emerges. The best part is that McDavid, barely 20, appreciated the experience.
"You're looking at every guy and every guy is a bigger and better star in this league and so many amazing players on that line," he marveled. "It was pretty cool."
Chilling, even. And not only because they stood on ice.