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Hockey All-Stars labor to find net

EAST 6, WEST 4: MVP Sakic has a hat trick in the loss, but the NHL's best discover that it is difficult to strike.

Published February 9, 2004

ST. PAUL, Minn. - No checking. That's the first rule of an NHL All-Star Game. The second rule: pass, pass, pass. Behind the back, through the legs, it does not matter. Whatever is prettiest.

Defense? What defense?

Finally, score goals by the bushel-full.

In other words, do everything you do not see in your normal, run-of-the-mill NHL game.

The stars in Sunday's 54th NHL All-Star Game tried to put on a show worthy of recent All-Star Games. You know, ones that have the look, feel and score of a pickup game on some frozen pond. The NHL's recurring problem, however, reared its head again.

How is this for irony: In a league desperate for scoring, even the NHL All-Star Game could not muster an offensive boom. The Eastern stars beat the West by a relatively tame (by All-Star standards) 6-4 score at the Xcel Energy Center.

Yet the 19,434 fans who are used to watching the low-scoring Wild enjoyed what could be the last All-Star Game for some time.

"This might have been the last one for a while," Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick said. "Let's hope it isn't."

All indications, though, point to a labor showdown in September, when the current collective-bargaining agreement expires. While Minnesota produced what many in the league said was one of the best All-Star weekends, the dominant theme was the labor situation.

The players' association is digging in, expecting to be locked out before next season and anticipating a lengthy stoppage. The owners said they want to move forward but cannot under the current economic structure. Neither side appears ready to blink in this game of "chicken," and that notion cast a gray cloud over the weekend's activities.

"Who suffers the most?" former NHL star Ray Bourque said before the game. "Players and management suffer a lot, but the fans without the game, they obviously suffer (the most)."

With that backdrop, the players put down their tough talk for at least a few hours and followed the usual All-Star script, looking to make SportsCenter plays and wear out the goal lights.

Colorado's Joe Sakic, in a losing effort, did his part by winning MVP honors with the 14th hat trick in All-Star history, but the rest of the game featured the goalies.

"The goalies need to get a lot of credit," said Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis, who was held without a point. "They were outstanding."

In recent seasons, the All-Star Game has produced scores such as 8-6, 14-12, 9-4 and 8-6. Even though this one was the lowest-scoring game since 1996 and the second-lowest in 18 years, the fans still were treated to some special moments.

The NHL's young stars started to show a changing of the guard. Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson had two goals and an assist. Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk and Phoenix's Shane Doan scored spectacular goals. Goalies Roberto Luongo of Florida, Jose Theodore of Montreal and Marty Turco of Dallas drew "oohs" and "ahhs" from the crowd with brilliant saves.

"I think the last couple of years, there has been some great young talent in this league," Sakic said. "We saw it again. Very impressive. There's no question that the future is bright for this league with those guys."

Yet the old guard still showed off its talent.

Mark Messier, the Rangers' 43-year-old star, added to his impressive All-Star resume with a goal and an assist. Gary Roberts, at age 37, scored a goal eight years after he was forced to retire from the game for a year because of a severe neck injury. Veteran goalie Martin Brodeur of New Jersey again showed why he has played in eight All-Star Games.

Then there was Sakic with his hat trick.

"I haven't decided," Sakic said when asked what he would do with his MVP reward. "It's a nice-looking truck, so I'll probably be driving it for a little while."

It's certainly big enough to hold golf clubs and fishing gear. The question now is whether he will be hauling that stuff around in October.

"Let's hope everything works out," Roenick said. "Let's hope there's hockey to be played next year."

[Last modified February 9, 2004, 01:05:23]

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