Like most other professional sports the NHL’s All-Star game is seen as the ”mid-season break”, even though for the most part teams have played slightly more than 50% of their season’s games.
Few sports adapt well to an All-Star Game format and hockey is no exception. The NFL’s Pro-Bowl isn’t a whole lot of fun to watch and while the NBA and MLB do a better job of using a format that is both entertaining for fans as wells as reasonably resembling the way the game is actually played, All-Star breaks are generally just an excuse for the league to pat itself on the back, have an owners/governors/general managers meeting, review the rules, etc.
While the first official NHL All-Star game took place at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in October 1947 with the Toronto Maple Leafs being defeated by a team of all-stars 4-3, the basis for the game was set in February 1934. The 1934 game was a benefit for Toronto Maple Leafs player Ace Bailey, who had been badly hurt in a game earlier that season against the Boston Bruins, an injury that prevented Bailey from ever playing a competitive NHL game again. Players didn’t make much money in those days of course, so there was a movement to make sure that Bailey would be looked after following his playing days and the league held a benefit game for him. It was during that game that the Leafs announced that Bailey’s number six jersey would never be worn again by a Leaf player, thus we saw the first NHL jersey number retired. Starting in 1947 the game was played after the pre-season games, just before the regular season started. It pitted the previous season’s Stanley Cup Champions against an all-star team comprised of players from the other teams in the league. The game moved to a “mid-season” time frame for the 1966-67 season. From its inception through the 1967 game that meant the all-stars came from five other teams, as the league was in the midst of the era commonly known as the Original Six and in 1968, the last time we saw the defending Stanley Cup Champions play as one of the teams, the all-stars came from the other eleven teams in the league.
The format has been tweaked numerous times over the years, moving to an East vs. West format, with all players selected on an individual basis rather than the Stanley Cup Champions taking part as a team, to a Canada vs. the rest of the world format, to a North American born players vs European born players, to the NHL vs. the former Soviet Union etc. But the current format might be the most illogical one we have seen yet.
For the past few years, the game has resembled a fantasy event that we would more likely identify with a bunch of people from work getting together to have a friendly pool. The NHL appoints two captains and then provides each captain with two assistants/alternates. There is no rhyme or reason to which players are selected as captains, other than the league likes to make sure that one of the captains/alternate captains is with the team based in the host city. These six players effectively become the management team for their respective squads and select their teams from a pool of players voted in by fans and/or selected by the League. Each all-star squad comprises three goaltenders, six defensemen and twelve forwards, plus two rookies selected by the league.
This past Friday night in Columbus, site of this year’s game, we were subjected to the Fantasy Draft. The league had selected Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Columbus’ Nick Foligno as the two captains. Toews was “assisted” by Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash. Foligno was “assisted” by Patrick Kane and Drew Doughty and then the guys started playing General Manager. There are some basic rules around the drafting of goaltenders (must be selected by the 10th pick) and the defensemen (must be selected by the 15th pick).
Other than the Captains/assistants, eligible players sit in a back room, laughing and joking, playing with their cell phones and generally just hanging out while they wait for their “big moment”. Since someone has to be the last pick, to soften the blow of being the last pick, the league awards a new car to the last individual selected. As if any NHL player needs the league to provide a new car. Right from the start this year, Alex Ovechkin made it clear he wanted to be picked last and win the car. This was a Honda Accord being given away, not a Rolls Royce, Jaguar or Ferrari.
The only interesting part to the whole event was trying to determine the strategy of each team. Did the captains pick their friends/team-mates or did they try to structure a properly balanced team? Did Toews select a specific player from the pool solely in order to prevent the Foligno team from drafting a player who plays/used to play with someone already on Team Foligno?
Foligno won the toss and took a team mate (Ryan Johansen) and then Toews picked Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was ironic because at the first such draft, Kessel was the last guy picked and won the car. He is the same player today he was back then, so the pick was puzzling.
Throughout the hour and a half TV broadcast, the cameras kept going backstage to see the reactions of the still to be selected players and Ovechkin decided to try and add some humour to the process by holding up a hand written piece of paper saying that he wanted to be picked last because he really needed a car. Frankly, the Ovechkin behaviour was very tiresome and all he did was make himself look silly and make the whole concept of the car look really silly. (Note, we later learned that Ovechkin was actually doing this for a good cause, hoping to win a car that he could donate to a charitable organization in Washington, hence his lobbying. Once Honda learned of his reasoning, they gave him a car that he did donate to the Washington Ice Dogs hockey programme). Ovechkin was picked third last, thereby eliminating him from the car sweepstakes, but Honda then sprung a surprise by giving both of the last two picks a new car. Filip Forsberg and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were the recipients, but I suspect neither really needed a new car. Let’s hope they do the same thing Ovechkin did and donate the vehicles to a charity in their respective cities.
More foolishness was apparent as the two captains worked out a “trade”, with Toews trading Kessel to the Foligno team for Seguin. Ironic in that in real time these two were effectively traded for each other when the Bruins traded Kessel to Toronto for some draft picks, one of which turned out to be Seguin. Keep in mind that Kessel was Toews’ first pick and Foligno could have selected him first overall if he had really wanted him, so it left the viewers with the distinct impression that this was cooked up. For entertainment? Perhaps. For humour? Perhaps. Either way it made no sense to me, and likely many others.
Then the league added to the stupidity of the whole weekend by “suspending” Penguins star Sidney Crosby for the Penguins first game after the break because he chose not to attend the all-star game/festivities because of an injury. Only Crosby and the Penguins’ doctors know for sure if the injury is legitimate, but let’s assume it is. The league has now forced Crosby to miss a game which means something to his team rather than allowing him to miss a game that meant absolutely nothing. How does the NHL explain that one off? If I were Penguins’ management and Crosby was in fact legitimately injured, I would be making a lot of noise with the league about forcing me to play my star player in a meaningless game just so that he could be allowed to suit up two nights later for a game that counted in the standings.
Oh yes, the game ended 17-12 in favour of Toews’ team. More like a ball hockey game on the street, a table hockey game score or a half-time score in a college football game, but certainly not an NHL game. The majority of the game was played at a slow pace, with no defense and no hitting. Johansen was voted the game’s MVP, notwithstanding that John Tavares scored four goals. Home town bias perhaps? We will never know. In view of the number of goals we see in all-star games, why not do away with goaltenders and replace them with the “Score-O” boards we see on nets at intermission, where the players would have to earn a goal by finding the small hole(s), just large enough to let a puck through. Maybe we would see a 5-3 game. That might be enough to generate some additional fan interest.
Maybe it will help the growth of hockey in Columbus, still a new market as far as the NHL is concerned, but all in all, just a wasted weekend from the viewpoint of this writer. I can’t imagine why anyone would have paid top dollar for that kind of “entertainment”.
The game isn’t played in Olympic years due to scheduling issues. Another reason we like Olympic hockey so much. Frankly, an Edmonton-Buffalo game in the race for Connor McDavid would have been more interesting and when you look at the goals given up by those two teams, that alone tells you how much I thought of the “classic”.
Soccer may be the sport that is best suited to an all-star format and I am a big fan of the English Premier League (“EPL”) having grown up in England, but the EPL doesn’t have an all-star game and it seems to thrive quite well, so I am not sure that any pro league in North America needs to worry about losing its fan base if they scrapped all-star games. If the EPL doesn’t need it, why do the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB need it?
Get with it NHL, it is time to lose this “attraction” and free up a few days for regular season fixtures and avoid the playing of hockey in late June.