Hockeypalooza Hits Toronto as Fans, Players and Celebrities Gather to Celebrate the NHL’s All-Star Weekend

Former NHL hockey player Luc Robitaille (left) skates with Justin Bieber (right) at the 2017 all-star game in Los Angeles. Celebrities will be front and centre again during this weekend’s hockey-fest in Toronto Photo: John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This weekend in Toronto, the NHL will hold its annual all-star game, gathering the game’s top players, past superstars, big-name celebrities and corporate sponsors all together for a four-day celebration of hockey.  

You couldn’t find a city better suited to staging the NHL’s annual hockeypalooza. Not only does this puck-mad metropolis spawn more NHL players (by far) than any other city worldwide, but it also hosted the first unofficial all-star game in 1934 and the first official game in 1947.


The Roots of the Game


Back before the all-star tilt had morphed into hockey hypefest, the game was held as a fundraiser for injured or destitute players.

That first contest in 1934, pitting the Toronto Maple Leafs against a collection of players from the other NHL teams, raised $23,000 for Ace Bailey, a Leaf forward who had been severely injured in a violent on-ice collision and was forced to retire. 

Various benefit contests like this one followed until 1947, when the game became an annual affair featuring that year’s Stanley Cup champion against a collection of stars from the other rosters, with the proceeds going to the players pension fund.

These games were often hard-hitting affairs where fights would occasionally break out, including a famous scrap in the 1948 game involving a young Gordie Howe.


Men and Women on Show


But those gritty rough-and-tumble all-star games are as obsolete as wooden hockey sticks. There is no contact in today’s games, and players are encouraged to show off their personalities and talent while competing for the million-dollar prize that goes to the overall winner of the skills competition. 

The women’s game will also get star billing as the event also hosts a three-on-three game featuring the top players from the PWHL, a match that promises to be far more intense than the men’s game. “We can’t take it off, because at the end of the day, people will always have the opinion that if we don’t give our best, women’s hockey isn’t good,” Montreal star Marie-Philip Poulin told the CBC.


Pop-Culture Power Play


As the NHL increasingly uses the events to market its sport, the actual match has become almost an afterthought. There will be a massive Fan Fair at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre featuring interactive events, video game competitions, Q&As and autograph sessions with players past and present and a red-carpet event that will allow fans to get up close and personal with their heroes.

Every year the NHL parades out a list of celebrities hoping to draw in fans who might otherwise not watch the sport. The league is banking on the hope that this year’s big names – including Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Will Arnett and Tate McRae – will create buzzy pop-culture moments for the NHL’s social media channels, on a smaller scale to what Taylor Swift has done for the NFL’s.


NHL Hockey
Justin Bieber posted a video of this year’s NHL all-star jerseys, designed by his drew house clothing line. Photo: justinbieber/instagram


Plus, there will be the usual quirky attractions – like the giant Cheetos-sponsored statue of a hockey glove covered in orange dust, temporarily set up at Roundhouse Park, or Wayne Gretzky’s Basement Pop-Up Experience, where you can see his childhood memorabilia, trophies while enjoying a glass of wine from Wayne Gretzky Estates. 


A Special Honour


Older fans (like me) might cringe at all this ephemera and complain that they won’t be watching because it’s no longer about the game. But before you turn the channel to curling or college basketball, consider that, in spite of all the kitsch, the all-star game still holds a special place for players, especially those making their first appearance. 

“It was a dream of mine,” said an enthusiastic Sam Reinhart, who at 28, was overjoyed to learn he had made the team for the first time. “I’m sure [the game] has changed over the years, but I just want to enjoy the experience. I’ll just try to soak it all in.” 

Don’t tune in this weekend expecting an intensely competitive hockey game.  Instead, follow Reinhart’s advice and just try to “soak it all in.”


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