MONTREAL - The winds blew hard and cold down Mount Royal and through the streets of downtown Montreal, driving the temperatures below zero.
Snow and ice covered the streets and sidewalks all around the Bell Centre. It was a bitter, miserable winter mess, the likes of which are best suited for polar-bear watching and ice fishing.
It should have left the streets empty and barren. Instead they were a sea of blue and red hockey jerseys, and parents trying to keep up with children sprinting toward the arena and the NHL Fan Expo in the big tent across the street.
The cold didn't matter - this is hockey weather and this was the NHL All-Star Game.
"It was crazy, unbelievable," said New Jersey's Zach Parise. "The fans, you could tell that they really did a good job of making it a weekend. I've never seen anything like it.
"It was freezing, but they were still out there hanging, staying out on the red carpet [for autographs] when we were there. They were great."
And so it went this weekend in Montreal. In the year of the Canadiens' franchise centennial, the NHL's best gathered in what many self-professed hockey purists consider to be the Vatican of the hockey world, the perfect stage for the 2009 NHL-All Star Game.
For the record, the East beat the West, 12-11, in a shootout.
Montreal's Alexei Kovalev and the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin both beat Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo while Boston's Tim Thomas held the net at the other end.
Kovalev was named the game's MVP. He finished with two goals in regulation and the overtime tally.
"Well, like I said at the beginning of this weekend, I'm not going to hide. I really wanted this badly, so I was going for it," Kovalev said.
"You can't ask for a better package than this. Get voted into the All-Star Game by the fans, starting lineup, being the captain, get MVP. This is something you're going to remember for the rest of your life."
The East jumped to an early lead, but the West caught up; the East grabbed two leads in the third period, but the West forced overtime.
It was one long skills contest.
"It was great," said Boston's Zdeno Chara. "I really enjoyed it. The fans really made a great atmosphere in Montreal. They love their hockey."
So the main event was exactly what it was supposed to be, what it has always been, what it will always be - a spectacular game of pickup hockey played by some of the most talented men in the business.
Skate, pass, shoot, run up the score, and don't worry about a thing. In the first 20 minutes of the game, six goals were scored and not a single body was checked.
By the second period the score was 8-8. Twenty-three total goals and it wasn't even the most scored in an All-Star Game. There was even a penalty called in the overtime, and the fans booed heartily.
Flyers' representative Jeff Carter played on a line with Buffalo's Thomas Vanek and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk - a trio that has 78 goals among them this season.
Carter did not score and his line finished with a minus, but he played a big part in killing the only penalty in the game, called on Montreal's Mike Komisarek, and had two shorthanded chances.
"I almost had one there at the end," Carter said. "It was close."
Taken as a whole, the 3-day midwinter festival was more than just a single game, it was a celebration of the game for the fans who love it.
"That was a great finish," said Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier. "The last 5 minutes really picked up and the fans loved it, obviously."
While the first puck dropped on the actual game at 6:30 p.m., the weekend began in Montreal months ago. Since it is the year of the Canadiens and they were determined to put as many of their players as possible on the team, the voting went on for months, early and often, netting four players and a coach.
During the fall, banners hung from street posts proclaiming the coming of the event, and on Thursday morning, hockey fans by the thousands streamed through the streets around the Bell Centre, enjoying the Fan Expo and jamming into the arena whenever and wherever they could.
The Friday practice session had more people in attendance than games in many cities throughout the league. Twenty-thousand stood and cheered the drills and waited around after, hanging into the player tunnels in search of autographs.
Saturday night, Ovechkin stole the show during the breakaway competition, donning bright white sunglasses and a safari hat adorned with a small Canadian flag and skating in using two sticks before dropping one to shoot.
"Well, I think, you know, fans have to see how we are, who we are, you know," Ovechkin said. "They see our skills and, I think the last trick was just for fun. I think fans love it."
Chara won the hardest shot, setting a new record with a 105.4 mph slap shot, Edmonton's Andrew Cogliano nipped Carter in the fastest skater competition, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin had the most accurate shot, and Phoenix forward Shane Doan won the shootout competition.
It was a hockey party, complete with rock bands playing from suspended stages above the ice while the zambonis worked and a shirtless circus stud spun and twirled a chrome tube cube. Hockey beefcake.
"I love this experience," Lecavalier said. "I've been here 3 or 4 days and all the All-Star Games I've been to have been great, but to be here in Montreal in front of my family and friends and the way people acted it was incredible." *