By Jason Menard
The NHL went deep into its bag of tricks this weekend trying to drum up interest in the annual all-star game. And while some of the ideas worked, overall maybe it’s time for this star to go nova.
I tried. I tried to translate the excitement and hype generated by the changes to the all-star format into actual interest in the game. I bought into the pond-hockey hype, but like many ideas, what worked conceptually failed miserably in the execution.
First off, thank Philo Farnsworth for the advent of the PVR, which allowed me to skip over some of the most mind-numbing aspects of the much-ballyhooed draft. The idea of NHL captains picking their own teams was inspired; unfortunately, the execution of the draft was not.
The players appeared disinterested in the festivities, the fake Phil Kessel controversy was tired the moment it started, and even the normally engaging James Duthie’s entertainment value was dulled by having an endless parade of boring foils walk by him, essentially moving from one chair to another, with very little inclination – or, perhaps, ability – to engage in witty repartée.
The skills competition was the highlight of the event. In fact, I’d argue that instead of the all-star game itself, this skills event would be enough. However, even that idea is filled with potential dangers.
Certain events are no-brainers: fastest skater, the skills challenge relay, accuracy shooting, and hardest shot, for example. These events give both rabid and casual fans alike and opportunity to see how talented these athletes actually are. Personally, I’d love to see an addition to the hardest shot competition where players take two shots with their space-age, thousand-dollar, technologically advanced sticks, then follow that up with two shots with a 70’s-era Sherwood. Let’s just see how much technology has impacted the game, by seeing how many kilometres fall off those slap shots when you unload with a big piece of lumber.
What should be the most exciting part of the competition is running the risk of self-parody. The break-away competitions are fast becoming like the NBA slam dunk competition – and that’s not a good thing. Creativity is great, but the object is to put the puck in the net. I love P.K. Subban, but to finish second without scoring? Seems pointless. The dunks have become repetitive and tiresome; how soon will that be the same for breakaways? And when that happens, you water down one of hockey’s most-exciting plays.
As for the game itself, the less said, the better. I tried to watch, but after a few minutes, I had to turn it off. This wasn’t hockey. This wasn’t even an engaging exhibition. This was a bunch of guys going through the motions. Most of us have given up on the idea that there will be defense played, but there was very little effort expended on the offensive end. Players appeared to be moving half-speed, meeting little resistance, en route to wracking up 21 essentially uncontested goals. Every once in a while, I’d tune in again –only to see the same lethargic play.
The best part of the event? The glimpses behind the scenes that we received, especially when Boston Bruins’ netminder Tim Thomas had a live, two-way microphone hooked up. While I doubt any coach would allow their goalie to be distracted by in-game questioning, it did afford a new perspective on the game to which fans are usually not privy.
As NFL Films has shown again and again, getting those glimpses into the game within a game is entirely riveting TV. As a fan, I’d love to watch a game using a feed that allowed me to listen in on a couple of players wearing microphones. Sure, this wouldn’t be intended for kids as the language tends to be a little more salty than Hockey Night in Canada normally allows, but for older fans, it would be engaging and insightful.
The NHL All-Star Game is supposed to be a showcase of the league’s marquee talent in an attempt to entice non-watchers and casual fans to embrace the game. However, it fails miserably simply because while it does bring together the league’s brightest stars, it eliminates the very thing that makes them shine – passion.
We’ve seen hockey at its best at the World Junior Championships and in the NHL playoffs – it’s a fast-paced, physical-without-being-dirty game that’s fuelled by the very thing the all-star game lacks – intensity.
Unfortunately, there is no fix. Players don’t want to get hurt in a meaningless exhibition, so they won’t put out full effort – that’s why there’s the ‘no bodychecking’ code. And while the idea of having players pick their teams, road hockey style, was interesting, it didn’t address the root cause of what ails the all-star game.
Hockey is a great game and deserves to be showcased. Its players, at the highest level, can do things with a puck or on blades that deserve to be celebrated. So maybe it’s time for to take the game out of the all-star weekend. Focus on and celebrate the individual talents and showcase the players’ personalities (and despite what the painful Friday-night interviews may have indicated, there are some out there).
What we saw this weekend was false advertising. So let’s leave the actual game showcase for when the sport it at its best – the playoffs.