GATINEAU, Que. – The battle lines were established early in the NHL’s all-star weekend.
From the moment Zdeno Chara won the right to pick first in Thursday’s NHL all-star fantasy draft, it was clear what strategy he and rival captain Daniel Alfredsson were employing to select their respective teams.
Alfredsson played to the home crowd by taking all three of his fellow Ottawa Senators along with every other Swedish player in the game. Chara targetted members of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs — drawing boos after several picks from the surprisingly boisterous gathering — and painted himself in the role of villain as a result.
“It’s funny the way it’s set up and probably neat that way, that the one team will probably be cheered a little more than the other,” said Jason Spezza, selected in the second round by Alfredsson. “You probably don’t get that all the time in an all-star game. It’s unique that you can get everybody on one team and have some of the rivalries that are there.”
Alfredsson’s team will be considered the favourite in Sunday’s game at Scotiabank Place and not just because they’ll have the unwavering support of a sellout crowd. He drafted the league’s last two Art Trophy winners — Daniel and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks — along with current league scoring leader Steven Stamkos and young stars Claude Giroux and John Tavares.
Chara left feeling good about his team — it is an all-star game after all — and he should have some motivated Maple Leafs in alternate captain Joffrey Lupul, forward Phil Kessel and defenceman Dion Phaneuf.
They were treated to chants of “Leafs Suck!” and “Overrated!” throughout the fantasy draft.
“I didn’t realize (the hate) was that bad to tell you the truth,” said Kessel, who was selected 15th overall after going last a year ago. “When we play here I think there’s a lot of Leafs fans at the games, right?”
The Leafs-Senators rivalry brought a great atmosphere to the NHL’s second all-star draft and should only build as the weekend progresses. Ottawa is hosting the showcase event for the first time and seems to be amped up for the event — with fans lining the Rideau Canal on Thursday afternoon to catch a glimpse of the Stanley Cup and screaming throughout the draft in the evening.
The enthusiasm caught Alfredsson off guard.
“When I walked out (on stage), I was surprised,” he said. “I didn’t know how to react to be honest. They made it fun, they made the show. They were really into it.”
The evening included no reminders of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the game’s biggest players who are both notably absent from the weekend. Crosby remains sidelined with a concussion while Ovechkin opted out after being suspended three games earlier in the week.
After winning a puck flip to secure the No. 1 pick, Chara selected Detroit forward Pavel Datsyuk and then turned to Bruins teammate Tim Thomas in goal. He rescued Bruins forward Tyler Seguin with the 35th selection.
Alfredsson chose Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson second and Spezza fourth overall. He took Ottawa forward Milan Michalek with the 24th pick.
“It kind of played itself perfect,” said Alfredsson. “Nothing was planned that way. We both kind of felt each other out.”
The last man standing was San Jose sophomore forward Logan Couture, a former star with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, who had earlier tweeted: “Is it me or is it getting hotter back here after every pick?”
Couture went to Team Alfredsson by default as the 38th player taken.
“It’s awesome to be here,” he said, seeing the glass half-full.
Couture got a Honda Accord Crosstour for his troubles. The NHL and NHL Player’s Association also donated $10,000 each to a charity of his choice.
It came down to a final four of Seguin, Buffalo’s Jason Pominville, Dallas’ Jamie Benn, and Couture. And then there were two: Benn and Couture.
Chara elected to go with Benn because of the lengths the Dallas Stars forward had gone to get to the game. He had his appendix removed two weeks ago and hasn’t played for the NHL team since.
“I’m healthy enough to be here and I’m excited,” said Benn. “I don’t think it matters (when he was picked). Just getting the chance to be at an all-star game was a pretty good honour and for Zdeno to throw out a shout out there was really nice.”
While Chara ignored players from the archrival Canucks, he was quick to welcome Thomas into the fold. The star goalie has been in the media spotlight this week, after opting not to join the Bruins in a visit to the White House, citing political objections.
On stage after being picked, Thomas said simply: “I followed my conscience.”
The players are among the biggest supporters of the draft format that was established for last year’s game in Raleigh, N.C. They wore microphones and cracked jokes throughout the evening.
As much as the weekend will be about good (Team Alfredsson) vs. evil (Team Chara), no one was losing sight of the big picture.
“If I lose, I’m not going to cry myself to sleep,” said Alfredsson. “We want to have a good show. We want to give the fans a good show.”
They’re already off to a good start.