Oh when I was younger I watched. In the days when the Campbells played the Wales, in the 1980s when high-scoring affairs were more commonplace during the regular season. It didn’t seem unusual the All-Star Game, a relatively light-checking, no-fighting game of pond hockey, would end 9-3 or 12-7. Nowadays, I prefer to watch the skills competition to the actual game, because the game resembles a group of buddies playing late night scrimmage at the local rink (albeit very, very talented buddies). Perhaps the game still seemed competitive when I was younger. And I know that because I was young, I didn’t question fan voting and ballot stuffing so much.
Maybe the talk about ballot stuffing is a little overblown. After all, the game has lost much of its lustre in some ways, with players sometimes begging off to rest, others attending simply to be a part of the spectacle, or enjoy some downtime with former teammates. It seems a lot less competitive, a television event where the participants don’t take the ‘game’ very seriously. And maybe it shouldn’t be. In that respect, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much who is voted in as starters. I don’t intend this as criticism of any team’s fans specifically. The fans are allowed to vote for the starters, and they have. This year’s game is in Ottawa, and the paying customers want to see their favorites. The rules were followed, there will be 4 Senators, 1 Maple Leaf and 1 Bruin on the ice as the puck drops in Ottawa.
There has been criticism of the voting system. That was likely inevitable. The fan voting system has, in recent years, seen certain ‘anomalies’ arise. This year, the host team will see 4 of their players starting. That despite efforts by rival Toronto fans to send their own players, as well as players who wore out their welcome in Ottawa. The 58th annual game saw 6 All-Star starters selected from the recent Stanley Cup finalists. The year previous saw 4 Canadiens start in Montreal. In 2007, a campaign was launched to get Rory Fitzpatrick into the game as a write-in, and he finished 3rd ahead of Chris Pronger and Dion Phaneuf, despite that he had no points through 18 games (he finished that season with 7 points in 58 games).
Let’s not forget, the fan voting system was incorporated to boost fan interest in a mid-season game that counts for nothing in the standings. And no system is ever going to meet everyone’s idea of perfection. But, as I read Michael Langlois’ blog on All-Stars and what the term means in hockey, I have had some of the same thoughts he articulated. The All-Star game has often seemed to be a popularity contest, at least in the days since the Stanley Cup Champion played against a team of All-Stars from the rest of the league. Players in their twilight, playing in large hockey markets, were selected or voted in based more on career performance than the merit of the past season. Fans in host cities vote as many of their own into the game, others countering by voting for someone who left the host city on poor terms. I am sure that’s not the spirit behind the idea to engage fans by having them to vote their favorite players into the game. The result is a group of players who may or may not really be All-Stars.
I’d love the NHL to find a new format for the All-Star Game. As a kid, I collected hockey cards. And in the old O-Pee-Chee sets, you’d often find 12 cards for the First and Second Team All-Stars. These were the end-of-season selections, based on their performance for the year. As Langlois points out, these were selections that recognized the best players at each position. These selections are too often ignored today. The announcement is kind of buried during the off-season.
In combining these concerns, which admittedly, may not be held by many people, I began to think there was an interesting, potentially better format to be found for the ASG. Many say the preseason is too long, with little excitement. What if the All-Star game were played the weekend before the season begins? It would be difficult, with player movement the way it is, to pit the new champions against another group. But, the league still selects All-Stars. The league also selects an All-Rookie Team. I would propose the coach of the Cup winner get the All-Rookie Team, and another 6 forwards, 4 defenders and a goalie he selects, against the coach of the other finalist, whose team consists of the First and Second Team All-Stars, plus 3 forwards and 2 defenders he selects.
Certainly I expect there would be those who will find holes in this proposal. Each team would have 9 forwards, 6 defense and 2 goalies, not a full complement of players. The teams could still be loaded with 4 or 5 players from any single NHL team. There’s no guarantee of representation for each franchise. And, the fans are removed from the voting process, which does go against the trends in all sports.
For my money, the benefits are more interesting. After all, who but the most ardent fan could name last season’s All-Rookie team? The All-Star and All-Rookie designations are NHL awards that should be better recognized. The coaches who got their teams to the Finals are honored with this method. There is the chance for a further 16 players to be honored with a coach’s selection. Moving the game from mid-season eliminates a weekend where no meaningful hockey is played, and moves it to before the season. This would create some buzz early. Yes the game still isn’t for points. But, in the preseason, these star players might be more inclined to participate, their coaches less worried about the distraction of the ASG. And a smaller roster should not prove much of a problem, considering it’s not really a ‘roll 4 lines’ type of event. As for fan voting, well, as outlined, I am not sure it’s working the way it should be anyway. Who knows, it may even bring some competitiveness back to the game, as
At the end of the day, the All-Star Game is simply an exhibition, a television event that should showcase and recognize some of the best players in the game today. I acknowledge there are those who enjoy the game as it is, including the fan voting. Fan enjoyment is the purpose, and if people enjoy it, then it is a success to some extent. As a fan, my humble opinion is the event could be better, and could be an opportunity to draw attention to those who are actually named year-end All-Stars. It may even return some competitiveness to the game, as the young guns try to knock off the best of the best, while the All-Stars try to beat back the next generation. If that were to happen, it could only be good for the league’s showcase game.