All-Star festivities keep players busy

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ATLANTA -- It's the same every time the NHL holds its All-Star Game.

Most of the players get a three-day break to spend at home or perhaps take a mini-vacation.

Not the league's best. They flew here yesterday for a weekend of activities, culminating with the All-Star Game tomorrow night at Philips Arena, then will get right back into the season.

That doesn't mean they deserve sympathy, one of the All-Star coaches noted.

"I don't think you're wearing anybody out," Detroit and Western Conference coach Mike Babcock said.

San Jose coach Ron Wilson, an assistant for the Western Conference, put forth the idea of extending the down time into something of a semester break.

"I'd like to see us have a week set aside so the All-Stars can get a couple days to take off, spend time with their families," he said.

Or the NHL could go a step further and copy most of the elite European pro leagues by building a few short breaks into their season.

"If you do that, the problem is the schedule is so condensed," Atlanta coach and general manager Don Waddell said, adding that the playoffs then would extend longer into the summer. He is an assistant for the Eastern Conference.

Trying new tricks

A breakaway challenge a la the NBA's slam-dunk contest is the feature event tonight in the revamped SuperSkills Competition.

Three shooters each from the Eastern and Western conferences will get two chances to pull off a highlight-reel trick while attempting to score. Penalty shot rules don't apply. Skaters can start anywhere in the offensive zone and move anywhere within the zone, including behind the net.

Celebrity judges -- former Atlanta Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby, former Georgia Bulldogs and Atlanta Hawks star Dominique Wilkins, actor Taylor Kitsch and broadcaster Bill Clement -- will use a nine-point scale to rate the moves. A goal will net an extra point.

Neither of the two Penguins All-Stars -- forward Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Sergei Gonchar -- are scheduled for the breakaway challenge.

The YoungStars game, which includes Penguins rookie Kris Letang, this year has been incorporated into the SuperSkills Competition. There will be two, six-minute periods of three-on-three play.

The opening event will be an overhauled obstacle course relay with two 45-second rounds involving three players and one goalie per team.

The fastest-skater contestants will be timed in a straight line, beginning from a standstill on the goal line and racing to the far blue line.

Holdover events from past SuperSkills Competitions are the accuracy shooting, hardest shot and shootout.

The competition starts at 7 p.m. and will be televised by Versus.

Slap shots

At an informal media gathering for the YoungStars, Letang looked around and didn't see many familiar faces. "This is a chance to meet some of the other guys, see how things are going on their teams," he said. "I know a couple of the guys, but this is all new for us, our first year in the NHL. We have a lot of stuff to talk about." ... As expected, the league will announce today that the Penguins will open 2008-09 with two regular-season games against Ottawa in Sweden. It is not expected that the Penguins will play in the Victoria Cup exhibition tournament in Europe but they might schedule a preseason game or two overseas before the games in Sweden. ... Waddell was named to replace New Jersey's Brent Sutter as assistant coach for the Eastern Conference.


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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