Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
In the world of sports, the subject of All-Star Games is one that is frequently dissected, ridiculed, and defended by various parties. The NFL’s Pro Bowl has endured several changes aimed at making it more appealing to fans, including moving the game from the island of Hawaii to the mainland United States the week before the Super Bowl. The MLB All-Star Game has been set up so that the winning league in the contest gets home field advantage in the World Series. Even the NBA has gone in new directions with their game, including hosting a game in a city with no franchise (Las Vegas) and having the game be played in the new Cowboys Stadium last year before 110,000 fans.
No sport, however, has made more drastic changes more often to the format of their All-Star Game than the NHL has. Whether tweaking it to feature a North America vs. the World format, or adding events like the trick shot competition to All-Star weekend, the league has never been shy about trying to spice things up in the annual event.
Spurred on perhaps by the success of last year’s Vancouver Olympics (which caused fans to enjoy not having the mid-season ASG take place), the NHL has adopted several new changes to the format that promise to make it more fan-friendly, and also to make it the most unique out of any of the four major sports’ ASG’s.
The most significant of these changes involves getting rid of the traditional East vs. West match-up. To accomplish this, the league will allow fans to elect six starters (three forwards, two defensemen, and one goalie), and then they will take care of naming 36 more players to the All-Star Game. From there, the league will designate two captains, and in a live televised event the Friday before the All-Star Game, the two captains will take turns selecting players to fill out their rosters in a glorified pond hockey experiment.
There has been plenty of belly-aching about the plan from the time that it was announced, and some of the points are valid. From the league only allowing fans to elect 1/7th of the All-Stars, to feelings of how well it will go over for a player to be the last one selected to their respective teams, every single potential issue with the new look All-Star Game has been hashed over again and again. While these arguments have validity, the positives that these changes bring ultimately are going to be good for the game.
The NHL’s signature regular season event is the Winter Classic. The reason that this is the case is not only because of the spectacular settings like Wrigley Field and Ralph Wilson Stadium, but because of the throwback feel of the games. People all across Canada and the northern United States grew up playing hockey outdoors, and when you throw in the retro uniforms and the star power of the teams involved, you have a recipe for success.
Contrast these memories of the Winter Classics that have already been played with your favorite All-Star Game memory. Sure, there have been moments like Owen Nolan’s called shot goal and the fans drowning out the National Anthem during the Gulf War, but for the most part the All-Star Game has been nothing to write home about. Even the neat events that take place on Saturday night are fun, but ultimately unmemorable.
At least with the new format and national exposure of the proceedings, the NHL is stepping out of the box. There is no way that the NBA would ever do something like this (although that would be the ultimate sport in terms of captains picking teams), and the other two major sports don’t really have the ability to go this far out of the norm. After all, All-Star Games are supposed to be fun, and what’s the point of strictly going East vs. West when it would be a lot cooler to see Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin battle it out instead of being teammates?
The subplots that could develop with the “draft” are enough of a reason to be in support of it. Outside of Great 8 vs. Sid the Kid, you could also have teammates split up by the respective captains. Can you imagine Jonathan Toews battling Patrick Kane? How about one of the Sedin twins skating in against Roberto Luongo on a breakaway? While this game will never be more than just an exhibition (and therefore the proceedings aren’t likely to get very physical or chippy), these potential storylines would at least give some more zing to the game.
While hockey pundits like Pierre LeBrun aren’t very excited by the changes to the All-Star format, the point of the “draft”, and of the game in general, is that it’s just supposed to be a fun night for the fans of the sport. Even if most hardcore hockey nuts don’t throw big parties to celebrate this meaningless exhibition, the added intrigue that the format changes will provide will at least give folks an incentive to watch. And isn’t that supposed to be what innovation is all about?
More All-Star Thoughts
-Does the NHL write out the All-Star ballots in July? There is no reason in the world why players such as Alexander Semin, Chris Stewart, and David Backes shouldn’t be on the ballot, when guys like Antti Niemi, Jay Bouwmeester, and Marc-Andre Fleury are.
While it is true that just because a player isn’t on the ballot doesn’t mean that they aren’t eligible to make the team, the league has to do a better job at selecting what could logically be argued are its 100 most recognizable players. Fans should have the opportunity to choose from the best of the best, not mostly good players and a couple of scrubs.
-Finally, here’s a question: why can’t NBC at least televise the All-Star Game itself? The NFL playoffs are going to be on hiatus that weekend, and the Pro Bowl won’t overlap with the coverage, because it will be played on FOX. There is no logical reason that NBC shouldn’t dedicate its Sunday afternoon coverage to a league that it televises, unless of course “Lipstick Jungle” or “Outsourced” has some comeback plan that we’re not aware of.