The All-Star Game Travels to...Columbus?
So another mind-numbingly boring All Star game has come and gone. As in years past, the game has proven to be of interest only to the local fans that live in the host city. But I can’t really fault the NHL for it being so boring, nobody wants to see anybody injured in an exhibition game, and without any kind of physical play, there can’t really be any good entertainment. But something very interesting did come out of this weekend’s game; the decision to host next year’s event in Columbus, Ohio.
In my mind, Columbus is the weakest team in the league right now. A lot of the relocation or failing franchise talk is centered on Phoenix, currently owned by the league, but the lowly Blue Jackets are the saddest act in town. Not only do they draw terrible crowds and have next to zero following on TV or radio, they’re also a terrible team and almost a shoe-in to finish this season dead last (Edmonton is trying but even they can’t play that bad).
The Blue Jackets are the quintessential example of how not to run a successful franchise. Besides Columbus being a ‘non-traditional’ hockey market, they’ve also iced a terrible product since their inception, and it’s no wonder they haven’t been able to build any kind of fan base. This is the same franchise that emailed a survey out to ‘fans’ in November 2009 with one question: “How important is it that Columbus retains the Blue Jackets hockey franchise?” Last Friday, Blue Jackets fans received another email, this time a letter from owner John McConnell, apologizing for the team’s poor performance these last ten years.
In his letter, McConnell talked about how important the Blue Jackets and the arena have been to a revitalized downtown Columbus, before getting into the thick of why they’ve been so bad, for so long. He vows that the team will keep trying and that anything less than a Stanley Cup will be unacceptable. Pardon me if I don’t hold my breath.
Well, it seems the first step in building this franchise up and rejuvenating hockey in Central Ohio will be to host next year’s All-Star game. I find this decision to be, well, simple perplexing. I can see the perceived logic in the move; ‘bring an all-star game to a City that isn’t doing very well in hopes that it will draw new fans to the game.’ Since the game isn’t really followed outside of the host city, having it Columbus can’t do any harm. But really, having the All-Star game in Columbus is the last ditch attempt to save hockey in the city, and if nothing else will stop anybody from potentially moving the team in the off-season.
McConnell’s response was that the event will be a ”…celebration of hockey fans and having it in Columbus is a testament to the fantastic support of our fans and the strength of Central Ohio as a hockey market.” Except you need to have fans in order to celebrate and a team that doesn’t lose millions every year, to be considered a strong hockey market.
What having the All-Star game in Columbus will do is further diminish the event, relegating it to a mere side-show for most NHL fans. When the game was played in Ottawa this year, there was at least some enthusiasm in the host city, where there are thousands and thousands of hockey fans who would cheer, come to see their favourite players, and take a genuine interest in the event (as much as I downplay it, I would love to go to the All-Star game if it were being played in Calgary). But in Columbus, there will be ZERO interest in the player draft, which Ottawa fans were able to make at least somewhat interesting because of their enthusiasm for everything that was happening. There will be little to no interest in the skills competition, which will probably draw far fewer fans than the Flames’ annual event does. If they don’t like watching hockey, they aren’t going to like watching hockey players skate around without sticks, or fire pucks at an empty net. And as for the game itself, the building will probably fill up, but it won’t be with hockey fans, it will be with people who are going because it’ll be the thing to do that night. They’ll be a quiet, docile crowd, who have little interest in, or enthusiasm for, the game.
As for attracting new fans to the game and to the NHL, I have my doubts. It didn’t work in Atlanta, who hosted the game in 2008, and it doesn’t seem to have worked in Carolina either, where attendance is down almost ten percent from last year when they hosted. The only way Columbus is going to be able to build that badly needed fan base is by putting a good team on the ice each and every night, not by hosting circus attractions every few years, in hopes of distracting their fans from realizing how bad a team they really are.
While I have little interest in the All-Star game, I don’t want to see it die a slow death. I’m sure it is lots of fun for the people who attend and it has been an important game in the past, and maybe could be in the future. Instead of using it as a last ditch effort to save a dying franchise, let’s use it as a reward to strong teams, whose fan base, because of their support, deserves to host it.