Every year before the NHL season begins, its top players are flown to New York City to participate in a whirlwind press junket, which kicks off with a high-end cocktail party.
This year I was fortunate enough to be invited, although it was odd having to comb my hair and dress up for a hockey event. I'm sure it was strange for some of the players, too, considering their usual attire is soiled in so much blood, sweat and body odor that it could make the Molly Maid employee of the month weak in the knees.
This year's party was held on three floors of the Versace boutique on Fifth Avenue. Like lunchtime in a high school cafeteria, all of the popular players congregated together on the top floor. NHL studs Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) and Ryan Kesler (Vancouver Canucks) worked the room like Don Draper of Mad Men, while some of the meeker stars played wallflowers on the lower levels, praying that their watches would tick faster.
My wife and I decided to approach 22-year-old San Jose Sharks center -- and Sidney Crosby doppelganger -- Logan Couture, who was laying low with his girlfriend and plotting the gala equivalent of a prison break.
I realized the fancy finger foods weren't doing the trick for Logan when he asked if I could recommend a good restaurant. When our conversation turned to the Winter Classic -- a favorite amongst Penguins fans -- Logan told me he never gets excited about it, and for good reason: "It's not like it's ever going to be held in San Jose."
One of the easiest players to spot was 6-foot-8-inch Buffalo Sabres defensemen Tyler Myers, who won the 2010 Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie.
I told him that I watch a lot of NHL Network during the regular season, and that one of my biggest complaints is when a player looks into the camera and dully delivers: Hey, you're watching the NHL Network. I suggested that Myers say his line with some pep this year. Tyler shook my hand and promised, "Tomorrow, I'll do the TV liner with passion." When the season starts we'll see if he kept his word.
As I made my way across the room, I walked past NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, a man loathed by hockey purists, especially for being in charge while a whole NHL season was canceled in 2004-05.
What does one say to Gary Bettman at a party put on by the league that he runs? Is it polite to boo him in person?
I said nothing.
Moments later, when I was reaching for a fried ball of cheese, the party stopped. Walking into the fancy event wearing a T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers -- which somebody mentioned was the same attire he wore the previous year -- was Washington Capitals megastar and Pittsburgh's public enemy No. 1 Alexander Ovechkin. He breezed by, but not before smiling and saying hello to my wife. (I didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted.)
When I told Ovie that I was envious of his wardrobe, he forced a fake smile through his missing front teeth. I tried to continue our riveting conversation but he quickly turned to his friend and asked if he wanted a beer, before disappearing.
Just like a freshman geek at his first kegger, I was snubbed by the popular jock, who in this case just happens to be the world's greatest hockey player -- that is, until Sidney Crosby returns to action.
No Penguins were at the event, although on my way out I did meet a Penguins-killer: Former Montreal Canadien and current St. Louis Blue Jaroslav Halak. I don't have to remind you how the goaltender was deified in Canada two seasons ago after ousting both the Capitals and Penguins from the playoffs, do I?
Jaroslav and I quickly hit it off, and despite praising Penguins net-minder, Marc-Andre Fleury, it occurred to me that when the 2011-12 NHL season begins, all of my new-found friends -- Logan and Tyler included -- will become enemies once more. As for Ovie, he was never a friend to begin with.