By Neil Becker
Throughout the decades, hockey fans have witnessed many thrilling All-Star Game moments.
These unforgettable moments etched in the memory banks of hockey fans include individual historical performances from various legends of yesterday, Hall of Fame legends such as Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Grant Fuhr, Owen Nolan and even non-hockey Hall of Famer John Scott to name a few.
Traditionally, the All-Star Game takes place during the season's midway point. In a weekend-long event, fans get to see their hockey heroes compete in a variety of skills competitions such as fastest skater, most accurate shooter, hardest shot and breakaway competition, to name a few. Meanwhile, the goalies also go head-to-head in various drills to see who reigns supreme.
The rich tradition of hockey has seen numerous historical benefit games being held before the first All-Star Game was ever played.
Interestingly, the Hod Stuart Benefit All-Star Game, which was held to honour the memory of Montreal Wanderers Hod Stuart, took place before the NHL even began. In showing even back then the tightness of the hockey community, this game, which was played on January 2, 1908, at the Montreal Arena, was organized so that the money raised went to Stuart's family. This game featured the Wanderers playing a team of All-Star players representing the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association. Tragically, Stuart drowned only three months after the Wonderers won the 1907 Stanley Cup.
Decades later, there were other benefit games, such as the Ace Bailey Benefit Game, which took place on December 12, 1933, the Howie Morenz Memorial Game, and the Babe Siebert Memorial Game.
It wouldn't be until much later, on October 13, 1947, at Maple Leafs Gardens, that the first NHL All-Star Game was played. The format until the 1966-67 season had the All-Star Game being played in October until finally it was moved to mid-season.
Another change of format took place in the 1974-75 season when instead of an All-Star team playing the defending Stanley Cup champion, it was the Western Conference All-Stars playing the Eastern Conference All-Stars.
Personally, what I enjoy about the All-Star Game competition is that the pressure of a regular season isn't being felt. Players are seen joking around with one another and seem to enjoy showcasing their awe-inspiring skills at the Skills Competition while also entertaining fans by creating some magic at the All-Star Game.
Convincing, passionate debates can be made about the top five NHL All-Star Game highlights of all time. Fans might point to the thunderous emotional ovation Gordie Howe received at the 1980 NHL All-Star Game introductions at Joe Louis Arena, while others might make a compelling argument for Wayne Gretzky's four goal performance at the 1983 All-Star Game held at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New York.
Over the years, there have been other noteworthy top five highlights, such as in 1997 at the SAP Center in San Jose when San Jose Sharks power forward Owen Nolan thrilled the fans when late in the third period, he called his shot against goalie Dominick Hasek and scored to cap off what was a hattrick performance. That signature called shot is still often talked about among hard-core old-time hockey fans.
As a teenager, I was a big Pittsburgh Penguins fan which meant, of course, one of my favourite players was captain and Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.
On my list of five greatest All-Star Game moments, number five took place on January 21, 1990, when Lemieux wrote some All-Star Game history. On this historic date, he entertained the Civic Arena fans by spinning his magic and entertaining fans with a four-goal output to help the Wales Conference defeat the Campbell Conference by a score of 12-7.
Heavily cheered on by the home fans, Lemieux tied Wayne Gretzky for most goals in an All-Star Game. Gretzky, as mentioned already, performed the trick in 1983 at Long Island.
Affectionately known as 'Super Mario,' Lemieux didn't waste any time in making an impact as he scored on a wraparound with Mike Vernon, who was playing for the Calgary Flames at the time, in the Campbell Conference net. In this event, Lemieux could do no wrong as he totaled three first-period goals on three shots.
A minute into the third, history was made as Lemieux scored that fourth goal to tie Gretzky's mark. Not surprisingly, 'Super Mario' won his third All-Star Game MVP reward.
Following that game, I wore my Lemieux Penguins shirt for, I believe, a week straight, and every time I played hockey with friends, I tried to imitate his moves but to no luck.
My fourth favourite All-Star Game moment came on February 5, 1980, when 21,002 enthusiastic fans gave beloved hero Gordie Howe a prolonged standing ovation at the brand-new Joe Louis Arena in Detroit during what would be his 23rd and final All-Star Game.
Words couldn't describe this emotional scene which saw Howe skating out to the blue line while the Joe Louis Fans shook the rafters by loudly chanting Gordie's name. According to various articles, this was a prolonged four-minute standing ovation with fans chanting his name, leaving Howe feeling emotional.
Howe, who is affectionately known as 'Mr. Hockey,' was 51 years of age and playing in his 26th and final NHL season. This standing ovation, which I have only seen on television on video, always leaves me with chills.
During his Hall of Fame career, Howe proudly wore the Red Wings colours for 25 years, where during his era, he emerged as the all-time leading scorer until Gretzky came along. While in Detroit, Howe's on-ice success didn't go unnoticed as he earned six Art Ross Trophies and six Hart Trophies for league MVP.
In total, Howe would win four Stanley Cups before retiring from the Red Wings in 1971 and spending a few seasons in the WHA, where during his time with Houston and the Whalers, he experienced the thrilling treat of playing alongside his sons in Marty Howe and future Hall of Famer Mark Howe.
Eventually, in 1979, expansion came to the NHL, and one of those teams was the Hartford Whalers. During its expansion year, Hartford had a couple of veterans playing their final seasons in Dave Keon and Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.
Watching the tribute of that thunderous All-Star Game ovation, another scene that gave me goosebumps, was during the game when fans once again enthusiastically cheered and chanted Howe's name every time he touched the puck. This is a hockey All-Star Game moment that will live forever among hockey historians.
My second favourite NHL All-Star Game moment goes back to 1988. Lemieux, once again St. Louis, had a game to remember as he scored a record-setting six points in a 6-5 Wales Conference overtime win against the Campbell Conference.
Lemieux, who scored a hattrick that included the winning goal, naturally won a car for being voted All-Star Game MVP.
The game, held on February 9, 1988, at the St. Louis Arena, also saw Wales Conference teammate Mats Naslund total three assists on three of Lemieux's goals and two others for a five assists game which set a new All-Star Game record.
Still, with all due respect for Naslund, when I think of the 1988 All-Star Game, I think of Lemieux grabbing the spotlight with his dominating six-point performance, which will always be part of the NHL All-Star Game lore.
At the time, Lemieux was only in his fourth season and was in the midst of a breakout campaign that saw him score 70 goals and 168 points. During his Hall of Fame career, Lemieux provided many entertaining highlight-reel regular season, playoffs, exhibitions and All-Star Game highlight-reel goals.
My all-time favourite memory doesn't involve a highlight reel historical goal or a standout individual performance. Instead, it involved the unbelievable spine-tingling cheering of fans, signs supporting American troops, waving of the American flag and, of course, the belting of the National Anthem, which took place on January 19, 1991, at Chicago Stadium. What made the cheering and signs so special was the emotion on display as it was being played after the start of the Gulf War.
Many hockey fans might not realize that Wayne Gretzky strongly believed that the game should not be played at the time. It wasn't a sure thing until NHL President John A. Ziegler gave the green light.
This game, which saw the Campbell Conference defeat the Wales Conference by an 11-5 score, was televised not only in Canada and the United States but also to service personnel in the Persian Gulf.
I have to admit that often I will go onto YouTube and look up this All-Star Game just to once more hear the national anthem and see and hear the Chicago fans going crazy proudly waving the American flags and holding the patriotic flags.
Throughout the years, All-Star Game formats have changed. As mentioned, it started with benefit games to raise money for the families of fallen players. Following that, a concept was born which had an NHL All-Star Team playing against the defending Stanley Cup winning squad.
Other formats included Campbell Conference vs. Wales Conference, North America vs. the World, Team Captains representing each conference picking their teams, and the 3 on 3 formats involving the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific Division.
Many epic All-Star Game goals, timely saves and historic plays from the heroes of yesterday and today are still enthusiastically talked about. Personally, I couldn't get more excited out of talking about past All-Star Game performances and, of course, watching All-Star Game tapes on television from years gone by.