Thursday, January 26, 2012

Play the Game

This post originally ran in Cold As Ice, the column I write for Popblerd.

The NHL is in the annual mid-season lull known as the All-Star break. It’s a time for the league to celebrate itself with a skills competition, fan festival and of course, the All-Star Game itself. There’s just one problem: The NHL All-Star Game sucks.

The game is designed to highlight the best players in the NHL, but it inevitably looks nothing like an NHL game and more like a game of pond hockey. There’s no defense, no hitting and the final score is usually something like 10-9, which is unheard of in a regular season or playoff game. It’s essentially an exhibition game with even less on the line.

In recent years, the All-Star Game has been overshadowed by other events: The Winter Classic, the skills competition and the latest innovation, the players’ draft. This was a great idea from Brendan Shanahan that started with last year’s game; the fans vote in the starting lineup (don’t get me started on how dumb THAT is—the hometown fans in Ottawa this year stuffed the ballot box and voted in four Senators to the team) and the players draft the 36 remaining players (plus 12 rookies, who will participate in the skills competition).

Last year’s draft was highlighted by the drama of who would be picked last. “Mr. Irrelevant” ended up being Toronto’s Phil Kessel, whose embarrassment was compounded when Alex Ovechkin took a cellphone photo of him sitting all alone waiting to be picked and gleefully Tweeted it. Of course, Kessel gets the last laugh this year, because he’s having a career year (and will likely be picked early since teammate Joffrey Lupul is an assistant captain) and Ovechkin just announced he’s not playing because he’s suspended.

The players’ fantasy draft takes place tonight (Thursday), the Skills Competition is Saturday night and the game itself (ahem, the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game) is on Sunday at 4 p.m. (all games on NBC Sports, the channel formerly known as Versus).
Of course, this problem isn’t exclusive to the NHL. As a rule, all-star games suck. Baseball tried to make its game meaningful by putting World Series home advantage on the line, but that’s unfair to teams that earned it in regular season. The NFL’s Pro Bowl is so meaningless that it’s now held the week before the Super Bowl (aka, also this Sunday), so the seven New England Patriots playing the following Sunday won’t be there. But nobody cares, anyway.

I actually attended the NHL All-Star Game in 2000 in Toronto and without a doubt, the surrounding activities were more interesting and fun than the game itself. So what’s to be done about it? All-star games exist because they’re a way for league sponsors to make a little more scratch, as well as a way for the league to throw a bone to its member cities by generating some revenue for the local economy every year.

I’d like to see the NHL combine the All-Star festivities with the Winter Classic, so that game is the spotlight and the All-Stars still compete in the Skills Competition in the same weekend. Another way to go could be to return to the old pre-expansion pastime of having the defending Stanley Cup champions play against a team of all stars. Either way, the game would be more interesting than the one the NHL is putting on now.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any radical changes to the All-Star format, though. Just enjoy the exhibition of scoring and wait for the season to resume next week.

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