By Jason Menard
Dare I say it? The NHL is fast becoming the most innovative major sports league in North America, as evidenced by their brilliant move to add some excitement to the league’s annual all-star game by taking it back to its roots.
First off, it’s easy to be innovative when you’re league is a distant 13th in the big four. We, in Canada, like to consider hockey on par with the big boys: Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association. But, let’s face it, that big four exists only in Canada.
South of the border, hockey’s a regional sport with a sizeable following in traditional markets in the north, but struggling to retain its foothold in other markets. The TV ratings are dismal – I think it’s ahead of competitive lawn bowling, but I could be wrong. So basically you have a sport that has a die-hard audience in Canada that won’t waver, but you’ve got nothing to lose in trying to drive up fan interest in that massive TV market to the south.
So what do you do? You get creative – and the pond-hockey idea is a thing of brilliance!
Let’s face it, all-star games are dreary affairs in all sports. The players, while usually having a good time, take it about as seriously as it deserves. Even MLB’s attempt to drive some relevancy into the game hasn’t really worked. Sure, home-field advantage for the league that wins the all-star game is a good prize – but it’s only good for one team, who may only have a couple of participants in a game that may determine their playoff fate. It’s not exactly fair and it undermines the efforts of the World Series teams over the course of the regular season.
Basketball’s all-star game is a joke: all glitz, glamour, and absolutely no defense. In fact, the ancillary competitions: the three-point contest, the NBA/WNBA/retired player competition, and the rookie/sophomore games are far more interesting, but even those events are losing their lustre. The dunk competition, for example, pales in comparison to years past – and that’s got nothing to do with sepia-tinted memories of Dr. J and Chocolate Thunder, Darryl Dawkins. It’s all about second-and-third-rate players stepping up to a stage vacated by the marquee names.
Football? Before the Super Bowl or after, even the players don’t care. It seems like half the league is an all-star by the end thanks to the quote-unquote injury deferrals. Except for last year, the game represented nothing more than an expenses-paid junket to Hawaii for the players and their families.
Hockey’s all-star showdown has its roots in benefit competitions (Ace Bailey, Howie Morenz, Babe Siebert, and Hod Stuart). We’ve gone from Stanley Cup champs versus the rest of the league, to Campbell versus Wales conferences, to East versus West, to North America against the world and back again. But this latest incarnation may be the one that sticks!
OK, first let’s toss out the idea that this is a completely innovative idea. The Women’s Professional Soccer league did it first – but they may have an even-lower profile than the NHL if that’s possible. But for the first time in a long time, this game has generated some buzz.
Fans still get to misplace their votes for starters: three forwards, a pair of blueliners, and a goalie. Then the league fills out the rosters with 36 more all-stars and a dozen rookies. Two pairs of captains are selected for each team – and like kids throwing a bunch of sticks onto the ice and choosing players, the captains pick out their rosters regardless of league affiliation.
The captains also select the rookies to join their roster for the skills competition. And there you have it! A throwback to the ponds, roads, and driveways of our youth! Already these are grown men playing a kids’ game for enormous sums of money – and now we’re embracing our youthful ideals to an even-greater degree.
Fans in bars, restaurants, and offices throughout the country will be playing the “Who would you take?” game! Who’s going to be last (my bet? A goalie. They get three per team for some reason, so one of them’s going to be the dreaded Last One Picked)? Does a captain pick a teammate over a more skilled option? Do the Russians all stick together? The Canucks (not the Vancouver kind, mind you)?
The game will still be the same: goalies will be shell-shocked, defensemen will be so in name only, and the only people who go hard into the boards are the ones who trip in their attempt to keep up with the firewagon-esque pace. But the lead-up to the game will be fun. And at least we’re talking about it.
Yes, the novelty will wear off in a couple of years, but let me share my proposal for the next step – a true pond hockey game. Sure, no host team is going to willingly let this cash cow run free, but how amazing would it be to see the world’s best players face off against each other on the Rideau Canal? Forget 200 feet – double the length of the ice, bring back the rover, and let the fans line up around the sides of the rink to watch their heroes up close.
If that happens, not only would we have a game worth talking about leading up to the event – we’d finally have a game to remember!