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A TIME TO SHINE

10/18/2003 10:46 AM - Dozens of hockey's rising stars will converge on Grand Rapids next February for the 2004 Pepsi AHL All-Star Classic.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

Predicting the weather is typically a dicey proposition in Michigan, but it's a safe bet to suggest that the stars will be out February 8-9.

That's when the Griffins and Grand Rapids will host the 2004 AHL All-Star Classic at Van Andel Arena. The festivities will include the AHL All-Star Skills Competition on the evening of Feb. 8, followed the next night by the AHL All-Star Game.

Chances are there will be at least a couple of Griffins in the lineup when the league's top Canadian-born players compete against a team of players born in the United States and the rest of the world.

A total of 23 Griffins players have been chosen to play in their league's midseason all-star game during the organization's first seven years. At least two Griffins players have participated each year.

Last season, Grand Rapids was represented by goaltender Marc Lamothe and center Marc Mowers.

“Being that it was my first all-star game, it was a lot of fun,” Lamothe says. “The event is more for the fans, but it's our break too, and it gives us a chance to get away from the daily routine.”

There's little doubt that fans will be able to see the best rising young talent on display today.

Since the AHL All-Star Game was revived in 1995, more than 91 percent of the 295 participants have competed in the NHL. Six players, including former Griffins star Pavol Demitra, have gone on to play in the NHL's midseason classic.

Red Wings goaltender Manny Legace will never forget playing in the 1996 All-Star Game as a member of the Springfield organization.

“It was awesome,” Legace says. “The game was in Hershey, and what I remember is that our flight was delayed three times that day. Once I got off the plane with my wife and kids, we went directly to the rink and I jumped right into the skills competition.”

As a result, Legace didn't fare as well as he might have wished but that hardly diminishes his enthusiasm for the event. “It was my second year in the league and it was a huge honor to be selected,” Legace says. “There were a lot of guys who are now in the NHL.”

Legace was coming off a less than stellar rookie season that saw him back up first Nikolai Khabibulin and later Stephane Beauregard. “So it felt good, especially coming after my first season — the lockout year — when I didn't really play much toward the end.”

Both Lamothe and Legace say they didn't mind that goalies at all-star games tend to feel like sitting ducks at a shooting gallery. The actual contest is “like a breakaway shootout,” Legace says. “There's no defense — it's all offense – but higher scoring games are better for the fans.”

  Lamothe suggests that a goalie can only do the best that he can under the circumstances. “I wanted, first and foremost, to go there, take it all in, have a good time and just enjoy myself,” he says.

For the players, part of the attraction is the camaraderie among the participants. “It's kind of nice,” Legace says. “You're competing against these guys all year and now you get to spend a weekend with them and get to know them a little bit. It makes the rest of the season and years after that a little more interesting.” 

“It was nice to meet up with old friends and acquaintances that I've met along the way,” Lamothe says, reflecting upon his appearance in last year's AHL All-Star Classic in Portland, Maine.

Red Wings center Jason Williams, who played last season in Grand Rapids, agrees with Legace and Lamothe. “It's an all-around great weekend,” he says. “It's a lot of fun talking with some of the guys that you're usually playing against.”

Williams thought the skills competition was particularly entertaining. He remembers Steve Kariya, Paul's younger brother, “blowing a tire” during the relay race but still winning the event. “Guys get to show off a bit,” he says. “With so many good players, you see some pretty quick skaters and some hard shots.”

Lamothe can attest to the talents of the skaters in the skills competition. He won the goalie competition at last year's All-Star Classic, but he suggests it was almost by default. “I think it was a case of being ‘the least bad' among the goalies,” Lamothe chuckles. “None of us played too well — we all faced some pretty good shooters.”

Truth be told, any player who is selected is already a winner. “It definitely was an honor to be a part of the all-star game,” Lamothe says. “It was a good time, an opportunity to face the elite players in the league and to just challenge myself.”

Michel Picard, the Griffins' all-time leading scorer, has played in four all-star contests, two in the IHL and two in the AHL. He says he's always had a good time, but there was something special about the time he played in Grand Rapids.

Van Andel Arena hosted the 1997 IHL All-Star Game. Picard was joined in that event by teammates Jeff Nelson and Pokey Reddick. “It's always more fun when you're playing in front of the home fans because everybody's cheering for you,” Picard says. “It's exciting.”

Lamothe says a lot of things have to fall in place to get chosen for the AHL All-Star Classic, but after enjoying himself last year, he wouldn't mind if it happened again. “It would be an honor to participate again, especially with the game being here in Grand Rapids,” Lamothe says.



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