Confession time: had the AHL All-Star Classic not been in Syracuse this past weekend, I would not have gone. It was in Utica, NY, last year, a city that was closer to my former home Oswego than Syracuse is to my current home in Rochester. I didn't go. My friends went to Atlantic City in 2012 when the Classic was there. I stayed behind. In general, All-Star Classics just aren't my thing.
However, the Syracuse Crunch organization IS my thing. (Obvious statement is obvious) I've been following the Crunch for 12 years, and supported the organization at the Mirabito Outdoor Classic in 2010 and at the Toyota Frozen Dome Classic last season, which were two of the bigger events hosted by the Crunch during my tenure as a fan. Missing the All-Star "weekend" (which is a misnomer, since the AHL runs their event Sunday-to-Monday) just didn't seem like something I should do.
Of course, being willing to go may have also had something to do with these guys:
Matt Taormina (@MATaormina) February 1, 2016
I was never more proud of both Mike Angelidis and Kristers Gudlevskis than when they were selected as All-Stars. Angelidis was selected as a playing captain, and he fully participated in all of the events of the weekend. Gudlevskis has overcome any questions about his potential that last season created to become one of the Crunch's most valuable players, and his All-Star selection showed that. With Matt Taormina added into the mix, it was easy to want to go to support three guys who have been part of the backbone of this team this season.
Sadly for my competitive spirit, the Eastern Conference and the North Division didn't fair well throughout the course of the event. The Western Conference took the skills competition on Sunday, and the Central Division (which is also in the Western Conference) won the All-Star Challenge Monday night. Results of the skills competition can be found over at the American Hockey League's official site.
The league's new format for the Challenge was pretty neat to see, and it did alleviate a lot of the tedium that sometimes accompanies All-Star games:
But I got to admit, even 4-on-4/3-on-3 games, quick pace and all, still had a hard time holding my attention, especially when the divisions without Crunch players were facing off. I actually didn't see the final two games, as I left after game 4 and headed back to Rochester. I didn't take any time off to attend the event, and my bed was calling loudly. But it was fun to watch when the North Division was playing, especially given the level of talent on the ice.
The real attraction was the Skills Competition, although maybe not for the actual events themselves. It was the casual, fun atmosphere of the Skills that caught my attention more so than anything else. The glass was down, so players freely interacted with fans along the boards, which makes an event like this is perfect for young hockey fans. Watching a player make the night of a young fan was really something special.
The players themselves obviously enjoyed the casual atmosphere, too. Many had their phones out throughout the event, and social media sites like Twitter and Instagram soon filled with selfies (like the one posted by Taormina) with current and former teammates alike. Guys who had played with each other previously mingled freely (like current Binghamton Senator Mike Kostka and Angelidis, who played with each other in Norfolk), and that was fun to see, too.
Honestly, the best part of the entire event for me was watching Angelidis, Gudlevskis, and Taormina thoroughly enjoy themselves. It isn't very often that fans get to see the playful or joyful side of the players they watch nightly. I haven't seen those three guys smile and laugh as much as they did this weekend in a very, very long time. It was great watching them show so much joy in playing the sport they love, especially with how the inconsistencies the Crunch has faced this season have probably emotionally drained some of the guys on the team.
The extra events surrounding the Skills Competition and the Challenge left something to be desired, but the organization definitely hit the on-ice festivities out of the park. The War Memorial itself looked renewed with some fresh paint, and the All-Star Classic logo looked amazing under our ice for the weekend. I heard positive reviews of the customer service at the food stands around the arena - the OnCenter did a great job with staffing the event - and things seemed to run smoothly to those in attendance.
The AHL and the Syracuse Crunch should be proud of the event. I certainly enjoyed myself through most of it, as, er, shown on Syracuse.com.