Anybody who looks at the ratings for recent NHL All Star Games would likely dispute my claim that the event needs to be saved. After all, the past two games have had the most viewership and highest ratings since Montreal hosted it in 2004. While this is good news for the sport of hockey, it does not mean that the All Star Game is as popular as it could be. In fact, there are two key factors that may lead to an increase in ratings and viewership that have little to do with the quality of the contest itself.
The first factor is based on the performance of the United States’ men’s ice hockey team in the Olympics. The 2009 All Star Game registered a 0.6 rating and 1.087 million viewers, which followed a trend of steadily increasing viewership since 2007. The next game, in 2011 -which occurred the year after the United States forced Canada to overtime in the gold medal game in the Vancouver Olympics had 1.481 million tune in to watch, and earned a 0.8 rating. When compared to the previous viewership trend, that is double the predicted increase in views. Could it be a coincidence that the game suddenly became more popular the year after the United States performed well in international play? Absolutely. But the related timing is interesting.
The other reason why the All Star Game may be more successful as of late is due to the game of hockey becoming more popular in the United States of America. As much as I don’t care for current commissioner, Gary Bettman, I must give credit where credit is due. He has done a decent job promoting the game in the United States by insuring that more hockey games are shown on national television networks. As of now, there is at least one game a week that is nationally televised, in addition to many other contests spread throughout the season, including the Winter Classic. He is definitely making hockey more popular in America, though it does not excuse the three lockouts he has put the league through.
While it can be entertaining to watch at times, the All Star Game has a multitude of problems associated with it that desperately need to be changed. The current format has gone stale, and some of the best players in the league are not being selected because of it.
One prominent issue with the game is the player selection process. Though people may enjoy having the power to vote for their favorite skater to perform in the All Star Game, it consistently fails to bring in the league’s top players. For example, Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres was one of the first six selected to participate in this year’s All Star Game. To be blunt, he is not an all star; he is a horrible possession player and has just 11 goals and 19 assists, which ranks him 170th in the NHL in points on the season. The only reason he was selected to play the game is because his home country of Latvia flooded the All Star voting page and gave him a massive lead on the rest of the NHL. It isn’t fair to the players who were snubbed, such as San Jose’s Joe Pavelski and Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk, that they don’t get to play in part because Girgenson took up one of the spots.
The biggest reason why I personally don’t care to watch the All Star Game, however, is because it is not competitive. The game doesn’t mean anything, and the best players in the world don’t want to risk getting injured in a game that doesn’t matter. So, what is the purpose of getting the top athletes in the league together for a game when they’re not even going to try and perform at their best? It’s pointless.
There is also little display of defensive skill during the event. Historically, the game records over 20 total goals because shutdown defensemen rarely get the opportunity to show off their defensive talent. Take San Jose’s Marc-Eduoard Vlasic as an example. He is probably one of the most talented and suffocating defensemen in the world and was part of a gold medal winning Team Canada in 2014. But, it is unlikely that he will ever play in this game, because defense isn’t recognized as an exciting part of hockey. It makes me wonder if people are really selecting the best players in the league, or if they’re choosing the ones with the most points.
Make the Game Count
It seems that the best way to resolve the problems with the All Star Game is to make it count for something and allow the teams’ coaches and general manager to select their squad. Recently, my fellow Sharks writer, Andrew Bensch, wrote an article proposing that the conference that wins the All Star Game should earn home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Finals. This would definitely give an incentive for many of the selected players to try and win, but it only appeals to teams who have a chance at making it that far. Ryan Nugent Hopkins isn’t going to the Stanley Cup Finals with Edmonton, so there is little reason for him risk his well being for another Western Conference team.
My proposition is to give each division its own All Star Team and set up a two-round tournament that rewards winning divisions with advantages in the current season as well as the following season. It would go like this:
For the first round, the Pacific Division All Stars would play against the Central Division All Stars, and the Metropolitan Division All Stars would face the Atlantic Division All Stars. The winner of each game in this round would be rewarded with home ice advantage against their opponent’s division the following season. For example, Pacific Division teams typically play three games against every Central Division club, causing an unequal amount of travel between them on a team-by-team basis. So, if the Pacific Division won the first round, then every team in the division would have two home games against every Central Division foe, meaning they only have to travel to each Central arena once. The same thing would happen with the two Eastern Conference squads.
In the championship round, the victors in each conference would face off for one more match. Whichever division wins this game would be rewarded with the two wild card spots that are available in their conference, meaning that the top five teams in that division would make the playoffs.
This setup accomplishes three things. First, it gives players from every team, regardless of playoff hopes, an incentive to play their hardest and sacrifice their health for both their division and their NHL club. Second, it rewards teams in the toughest division with two more guaranteed playoff spots, thus preventing squads from being punished for having to consistently play against tougher competition within their division. And third, it creates a rivalry not only between the conferences, but between the divisions as well.
While there are definitely some flaws to this idea, it is just that: an idea. The All Star Game needs changes, and right now anything is better than the current format.
One extra thing about this: All of the games would be played outdoors and would replace the Winter Classic, whose popularity is dwindling.
Drew Weber is a columnist for the San Jose Sharks at The Hockey Writers. He previously wrote articles and appeared on podcasts for Teal Town USA (formerly Pucknology) and contributed briefly to Fear the Fin. You can follow him on Twitter at @puck_over_glass.