TAMPA, Fla. -- The top players in the NHL descend upon the Sunshine State for the All-Star Game on Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena.
While the All-Star Game is a highlight event on the hockey calendar as a chance to show off the top players in the game, it's not the showcase many hoped to see the top players in the world compete in this year.
For the first time since 1994, the NHL will not temporarily shut down the season in order to allow the players to take part in the Winter Olympics. For the past five Winter Games, the best players in the world competed for their respective countries, but when the 2018 Games open Feb. 8 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the NHL will be gearing up for the playoff stretch.
The only reason there is an All-Star game this season is because the league opted not to allow players to go play for their countries.
"You kind of shut that off when you know you aren't going to you don't really think about it. But it's a missed opportunity to expand our game," Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler said. "Lot of casual viewers that maybe aren't hockey fans, they'll watch USA-Canada and they cheer and that's an opportunity for us to expand the game, make more fans where maybe we didn't have the opportunity to do otherwise.
"That's kind of the bummer about it, you see some of those moments on prime-time TV, we don't get that as much in hockey as maybe we should sometimes."
The number of issues surrounding the league's decision not to disrupt their season this time around are longer than Santa's naughty list and just as complicated to sort out. But for the players, all that weighs on their mind is the absence of the best-on-best tournament that has produced some memorable moments, including Sidney Crosby's golden goal in 2010 and T.J. Oshie's shootout performance to help defeat Russia in 2014.
"It's always disappointing for players not to be in the Olympics," said Calgary goaltender Mike Smith, who was the No. 3 goaltender for Team Canada in 2014. "I think it's something that every kid dreams growing up. You dream of playing in the Olympics and playing for the Stanley Cup. To not have NHL players there, I think is disappointing for a lot of guys.
"I had that experience in 2014 -- I didn't play much -- but I had the Olympic experience which I think is something that I'll never forget. For players who would have had that chance this year and they don't have it now is probably frustrating and disappointing all at the same time."
--TAMPA FLAVOR: The NHL All-Star weekend coincided with Tampa's annual Gasparilla Festival, a tradition since 1904 that features an invasion of pirates who "take over the city" each year and parade down Bayshore Boulevard.
While Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson joined in the spirit, wearing a pirate hat during warmups for Saturday's skills competition, it wasn't the only flavor of the city on display during the weekend.
The Atlantic Division features four players from the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on the roster, most of any team, playing in front of their home fans -- captain Steven Stamkos, forwards Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point (who was a replacement for injured defenseman Victor Hedman) along with goaltender Andrei Vaskielvskiy and coach Jon Cooper.
"It wasn't even a charity case to throw more Tampa Bay guys on, we probably could have had more, it's been that much fun and successful on the season so far," said Stamkos, who is participating in his fifth career All-Star game. "So to be able to share that with teammates is pretty special."
It's a special return for Boyle, who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia before the start of the season but has returned to the ice and is enjoying a strong season with 11 goals through 38 games. Boyle received a loud ovation as he was shown on the video board, acknowledging the fans with a wave.
"I have a lot of time for Brian Boyle," Cooper said. "He'll be as popular here as Stammer, (Kucherov), (Vasilievskiy)."
Boyle was thrilled to get the call to come to Tampa this weekend.
"I'm very thankful to be here," Boyle said. "This is a tremendous honor. I don't really care how I got here, this is just a phenomenal event. And the amount of prayers and support I've got, the support from my family. My wife has been a rock star. I'm not playing regular games and I'm not here without her support.
"It really is a pinch-me moment. I can't believe this is my life. I'm very thankful and I've never taken it for granted to play in this league and to be here and see all these superstars and how humble and supportive they have been for me."