I'm a huge hockey fan. I love to watch the NHL on TV. Though I'm not a Habs fan, I have a lot of respect for the Canadiens, their history, and the city of Montreal. And I didn't watch more than two minutes of the All Star Game this past weekend in Montreal, and I didn't miss it.
Something is wrong with this.
I have no memory of watching it last year in Atlanta either. I'm sure I didn't the year before when it was in Dallas, when for some inexplicable reason the league scheduled it in the middle of the week. Both of the two seasons before that there was no All Star Game. I didn't really notice.
Oh, I used to like the All Star Game. I was at the 1989 game in Edmonton as a kid, when fans gave Wayne Gretzky, who had been traded barely seven months previous, a massive standing ovation. For years after that the ASG had a soft spot in my heart; I watched every moment I could, from the skills competition to the player introductions to the last seconds of the game.
But ever since the NHL started to tinker with the teams in 1998 with it's failed "North America vs. the World" format, the game has desperately needed a revamp.
Oh sure, some people say the game is just for corporate schmoozing anyway, that unless you're there for the fan interactive exhibits you can't get the whole experience and the TV broadcast is really secondary.
That's all well and good, but when players are declining invites to the festivities en masse, injured or otherwise, and the league is responding by suspending players, well, something's got to be done. Instead of forcing guys to participate, the league should be looking for new ways to make the game fun for the players and relevant for the fans again. Here's a few suggestions:
1) Come up with a new format every year, unique to the city the game is in. The first idea that comes to mind, with the game in Montreal? French Canadian players vs. everyone else. That's right, we're celebrating cultural and language differences with the All Star Game. Fans all over Quebec would completely eat it up, and would go wild if the French team won. You could even give the French side Sidney Crosby, since he played his junior hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, despite being from Nova Scotia.
For a game in California, you could have players from the three California teams against the rest of the league. Game in Buffalo? Players from teams in cities as cold or colder than Buffalo vs. players from everywhere warmer. In Colorado, play Joe Sakic's favourite players against Peter Forsberg's favourite players, and have the two icons coach the teams. Maybe not every venue would suggest an All Star Game idea very easily, but the point is, be creative and have some fun with it. Have five suggestions, and have fans vote for their favourite.
The game is in Phoenix, where Wayne Gretzky is coach and part owner, in 2011; why not have guys who idolized Gretzky growing up against guys who idolized Mario Lemieux?
2) Eliminate the All Star Game entirely, and have the Outdoor Game the centrepiece of the NHL's showcase weekend. The majority of players seem to like having a weekend in the middle of the season off, and the league's new annual outdoor hockey game, this past year held January 1st in Chicago, has already surpassed the ASG in many ways, including the amount of American TV ratings and goodwill it generates. Sure, only two teams play, but where's the downside in that? You'd still do the weekend the same way; shut down the regular NHL schedule for five or six days and include all the exhibits, events, and corporate schmoozing you would in a normal All Star Game weekend, and no players would back out because it's still a regular season game for the two teams playing.
You'd still do the skills competition, but it would be by invitation or fan voting, which might be better for the skills competition anyway because a lot of guys who could compete for titles in the individual events don't make the All Star teams. Imagine a fastest skater competition where the players invited are Calgary's Matt Lombardi, Edmonton's Andrew Cogliano, Columbus's Jason Chimera, and some of the other guys who are fast but don't have the hands to be All Stars. It might be lacking a bit in star power, but you might actually get an answer to the question of who's really the fastest skater in the league.
3) Pick the best 40 players in the league, throw their sticks in a pile in the middle of the ice, and divide them up shinny style, throwing one to each end until they're all divvied up. Sure you might get nine defensemen on one side and only three on the other, but man, would it ever be fun. Coaches would have to do some quick thinking and put their lineups together fast. You could tie the player introductions that always seem to take forever at the start of the game broadcast to the stick throwing and spice them up a little. And there could be a contest to be the lucky fan who's blindfolded at centre ice and gets to throw the sticks.