The Much-Maligned NHL All-Star Game - Is Another Revamp Necessary?
With the debut weekend of the National Hockey League’s brand-new All-Star Game format (and all the festivities that went along with it; namely, the All-Star Fantasy Draft and refurbished skills competition) now in the books, the debate is alive and well in the minds of the players, league executives, media analysts and, of course, for the diehard fans themselves. Spearheaded by NHL VP of Hockey and Business Development Brendan Shanahan, did the revamped format give the often-criticized All-Star weekend the kick in the pants it desperately needed? Or is further tweaking necessary for the annual event to return to relevancy? If you ask me, despite the very best intentions of the man best known as “Shanny”, the league still has a long way to go.
Sure, the Fantasy Draft and Skills Competition were certainly not lacking entertainment value whatsoever, and in my opinion, were the highlight of the entire weekend, outshining the Sunday All-Star Game itself. How often do you get to see hockey’s best and brightest sharing a draft floor with each other, picking teams as per the schoolyard rules of their youth? I would insert a joke here about the fat kid always being picked last, but at risk of offending any Toronto Maple Leaf supporters reading this, I will bite my tongue. As usual, the skills competition was overwhelmingly enjoyable, with the fan-first mentality (for example, hometown netminder Cam Ward and Bruins’ tender Tim Thomas chasing each other around the ice in full goalie attire) only making the talent showcase that much more fun to watch.
However, once Sunday afternoon rolled around, when the player introductions were complete and the anthems had been sung, the puck dropped again at Raleigh’s RBC Center on another NHL All-Star Game...and sadly, another glorified shinny game. As has been the case for countless years past, debated time and time again by everyone from casual puckheads to bigwig sports personalities, the game noticeably lacked two key factors which helped shape hockey into the glorious game it is; intensity, and physicality. It could even be argued that something as simple as effort wasn’t even there for some of the contest’s participants. When the final whistle blew and the game reached its eventual 11-10 conclusion in favour of Team Lidstrom, not a single hit had been thrown. Not one. Not even something as common as incidental contact in your typical hockey game, which this annual event certainly is not; entirely for the wrong reasons. The countless fans who watch our game for its riveting physical aspect, namely in the form of bone-jarring bodychecks, were once again left unserved. The moral of this story is simple; until the NHL’s All-Stars are actually given something to play for, a reason to show up and give 110%, the annual occasion will remain bland and, for all intents and purposes, almost entirely pointless.
This is where my possible solution comes into play. The ultimate answer to this enigma is not far away from the National Hockey League; in fact, it’s completely within arm’s reach. It’s my own personal belief that Major League Baseball has done very little right with their over-traditionalized sport (most notably still lacking a salary cap to prevent deep-pocketed franchises such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox from “buying championships” year after year), but the format for their annual All-Star Game is an undisputed home run (no pun intended).
With a simple American League vs. National League format (or in NHL terms, Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference), the composed teams play against each other in a baseball game which looks exactly like any other, at least from the viewpoint of the casual observer such as yours truly. Why, you might ask? The athletes are playing for something, something extremely valuable further on down the road through to a championship; the winning side receives home-field advantage in that year’s World Series.
I am undoubtedly certain that, if given this same reward for their All-Star event, the NHL All-Star Game could be reborn as a fast-paced, exciting showcase of the league’s best, giving their all for a valuable edge if their own team makes a Stanley Cup run that year. Since the familiar Conference vs. Conference set-up would be returning, that would almost definitely spell the end for the All-Star Fantasy Draft, but only one year into its brief existence, would you really miss it that much? I didn’t think so.
At the end of the day, whether you like the overhauled All-Star format as it is, are a fan of my proposed system, or want the All-Star Game gone forever, the deliberation will continue to rage onward like a wildfire through a forest. What does the future hold? No one knows.