Rory's run ran out

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:37 PM ET

The guardians of the great game of hockey can rest easier today, secure in the knowledge that the menacing shadow of Rory Fitzpatrick, a vulgar commoner, hangs no longer over the NHL's royal all-star festival.

Ah, but it was fun while it lasted, watching the purists wriggle and squirm at the prospect of a career bit player like Fitzpatrick stealing the league's glitzy show, however unwittingly.

In the end, as it turned out, the clever on-line campaign conducted by a guy who grew up in Fitzpatrick's hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to get the journeyman Vancouver Canucks defenceman elected as one of the starters for the Western Conference fell just short.

When the final vote tally was released last night, Scott Niedermeyer of the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings' Niklas Lidstrom earned the starting spots on the Western Conference defence ahead of Fitzpatrick, who finished with 550,177 votes, a record for a write-in candidate but 41,480 less than second-place finisher Niedermayer (591,657). Lidstrom had 573,069. Coaches fill in the remainder of the lineup and it's a safe bet Fitzpatrick will not be invited.

Now that the whole goofy thing is over and nobody got hurt or seriously embarrassed, it's amazing to step back and recognize that the NHL could have spent millions on publicity and never in a thousand years received so much positive attention for the sport and for the all-star shindig as it did by accident. In a year -- make that a century -- when the NHL is suffering from the chronic indifference of a large segment of the American public, Fitzpatrick made more headlines south of the border than Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Marian Hossa combined.

And to the NHL's great credit, it didn't get its nose out of joint, didn't threaten to sue, didn't do anything but smile and shrug and say, "Let the people decide." Good call, since to begin with it was the NHL that put no limits on the fan vote. When it was over, the league had accumulated all this free publicity and had banked some much-needed goodwill for being a good sport.

Better yet, when the election campaign fell just short, the NHL had no awkward mess to clean up. Had some guy on Madison Ave. dreamed this up and pulled it off, he'd be inducted immediately into the Advertising Hall of Fame (as long as he passed the drug test).

Better yet was the manner in which Fitzpatrick, 31, handled the whole thing. He didn't even know about it until his name popped up unexpectedly in the first set of results of the on-line fan balloting. That's when his brother called him to let him know that Steve Schmid, from Auburn, N.Y., had created a website to get fans to vote for Fitzpatrick.

Over the years, Schmid, a Buffalo Sabres fan, had grown weary of the voting patterns that seemed to always return the same players to all-star status. So he decided to back an underdog candidate. It didn't take him long to settle on Fitzpatrick, whom Schmid had admired for his grind-it-out style when he was with the Sabres.

"I think Rory is a great bridge between the players and the fans," Schmid told a Syracuse newspaper at the time. "He's your neighbour, the guy who coaches your kid's team. He's not a pampered superstar, out of touch with reality. I think it would be great to return some heart and hustle to the all-star game."

He has a point. What would be wrong with saving a spot on each all-star team, every year, for a player from that great grey mass of guys who are the glue that keeps most teams together; the heart-and-soul players who proudly carry a lunchbucket to work every night?

In that regard, Fitzpatrick was perfect. He knew from the start that the campaign was a bit offside but he respected that the fans were getting behind it in a big way and getting a kick out of backing an underdog.

"I could have come out and said this is stupid, but who knows what kind of reaction that would have had," Fitzpatrick told reporters in Vancouver this week.

"I just tried to keep it fun and not stressful. If it had become a distraction for the team or whatever, I might have handled it differently."

Even when Wayne Gretzky complained that fans didn't know who Fitzpatrick was or when Don Cherry said people were laughing at him, the guy with 28 points in 238 career games over nine seasons kept his tongue in check.

"Nobody ever likes to hear anything bad about themselves, but everybody wanted an opinion on it," he said.

"A month ago, nobody cared about the all-star game. Now it's this big, only-for-the-stars thing and so precious and guys who have made comments probably wouldn't have made comments two months ago. I have to take it as a positive. It got (hockey) some attention and the all-star game some attention.

"To be honest, I kind of represent the majority. The 40 or 50 who are going are the superstars, and pretty special, and that's why they're going. As far as players, they'd embrace me. It's just the sideshow effect I wouldn't want to be part of."

Now he's off the hook. The sport's bluebloods can play their little game of pretend hockey -- look, but don't touch -- content that the peasants are safely outside the gates.

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ALL-STARTERS

Starting rosters for the NHL all-star game, Jan. 24 in Dallas, with position, name, team and voting total:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Goal -- Ryan Miller, Buffalo (539,635).

Defencemen -- Brian Campbell, Buffalo (602,982); Sheldon Souray, Montreal (534,647).

Forwards -- Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh (825,783); Daniel Briere, Buffalo (475,857); Alex Ovechkin, Washington (475,297).

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Goal -- Roberto Luongo, Vancouver (484,861).

Defencemen -- Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim (591,657); Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit (573,069).

Forwards -- Joe Thornton, San Jose (663,931); Joe Sakic, Colorado (473,847); Jonathan Cheechoo, San Jose (444,885).


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