The Apathy and Absurdity of the NHL All-Star GameLynne Sladky/AP
The NHL kicks off its annual (usually) All-Star Weekend tomorrow, as the league’s best players (sort of) head to Columbus for three days of events that will show off the best the sport has to offer (not really).
But while Saturday’s skills competition and Sunday’s All-Star Game will have their moments, the highlight of the weekend will probably be tomorrow’s fantasy draft. That’s the relatively new concept, introduced in 2011, that sees the players themselves draft the teams. It’s a great idea, since stolen by other leagues, and it’s almost guaranteed to provide some fun.
Does the fantasy draft include a bunch of unnecessary rules about when certain positions can be picked that just makes the whole thing overly complicated? Sure. Is there a history of the players ruining half the fun by giving away the top picks in advance? Of course. Look, we never said the draft was perfect. But it’s still the best thing NHL All-Star Weekend has going for it.
And that’s why we’re going to steal the concept. Just like All-Star Weekend has become a tradition, columns complaining about All-Star Weekend have too. The fantasy draft helped breathe new life into the All-Star concept; maybe it can do the same for this post. It’s worth a shot.
So please welcome our two participants for today’s event: Team Apathy and Team Absurdity. They’ll alternate picks as they draft their way through the myriad ways the NHL has screwed up the All-Star Game over the years.
We flipped a coin before the event, but before it could hit the ground Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr started fighting over it. So we’ll just let Team Absurdity have the first pick, because Team Apathy shrugged and said it didn’t really care.
Let’s go to the podium for the first pick.
With the first overall pick, Team Absurdity selects: The one-player-per-team rule, which screws up the rosters
For most of its history, the All-Star Game has specified that each team must be represented by at least one player. That rule occasionally resulted in picks that were outright ridiculous, but it made sense in a big-picture way. If you want fans from around the league to tune in, you make sure there’s a player from the home team to cheer for.
So the rule mostly worked … back when there were 21 teams. With 40 (and later 42) roster spots up for grabs, that still left plenty of room to make sure all the top players had a spot and allowed the top teams to be well represented. You didn’t have to be a die-hard fan to scan down the All-Star rosters and think, Wow, the Oilers are a powerhouse, or, Yikes, the Penguins must be stacked.
These days, we’ve got 30 teams, which doesn’t leave much room to work with once all the mandatory slots have been filled. In theory, you’d still have a dozen spots to play with, which should be workable. But these days, one team is going to stuff the ballot boxes and elect too many guys, and the team that’s hosting always ends up with way too many players selected (more on both of those problems in a bit). This year, the league ended up having just six extra roster spots to cover the entire league. That’s ridiculous.
Inevitably, that leads to players who absolutely should be part of the event getting passed over. We won’t rehash the whole list here, since the specific players involved are beside the point. This isn’t some sort of fluke of the 2015 game. It’s going to happen every year, because the system makes it inevitable.
The reality is that not every team has a player who deserves to be an All-Star. Sometimes that’s due to injury. Sometimes a team is especially well balanced and doesn’t have one guy who stands out. And some teams are just plain bad. It doesn’t do us any good to pretend that teams like this year’s Hurricanes and Oilers have legitimate All-Stars. They don’t.
Here’s what the league should do: Try really hard to cover as many teams as possible, while keeping the focus on making sure that the game’s biggest stars are included. And surprisingly, that’s exactly what it did … for a while. In 2011 and 2012, the league dropped the requirement that every team be represented in the All-Star Game, wisely using the skills-competition rookie teams to cover any teams that were snubbed. But this year, the league went back to the old rules. It was the wrong call.
And yes, the whole thing gets back to marketing and wanting to make sure that fans of, say, Carolina have somebody to root for. But the league has lost sight of the big picture. If your marketing strategy involves showcasing Justin Faulk over P.K. Subban, your marketing strategy is broken.
With the second pick, Team Apathy is proud to select: Players who don’t want to be there
In theory, being picked to play in an NHL All-Star Game should be considered an honor, one a player would view as a boost to his legacy and a confirmation of his status as one of the game’s top names. That’s the idealized version of how this should play out, and there was probably a time when that was true, but those days are long gone.
Today, many players treat an All-Star nod as a bothersome inconvenience, one that ruins a midseason weekend off. After all, everyone is banged up by this time of year, and given how little the modern-day All-Star Game means, players probably would prefer a few days on a beach to participating in a tedious corporate shill-fest.
So it wasn’t a surprise when players started skipping the game in recent years, usually citing minor injuries. The situation came to a head in 2009, when the league announced it would suspend players for skipping the All-Star Game unless they had also missed regular-season time. Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom were forced to sit out a game as a result.
But extra rest isn’t the only reason star players have tried to skip the event. Sidney Crosby once reportedly threatened to skip the game in protest of the league’s refusal to crack down on dangerous hits. Alexander Ovechkin pulled out because he was mad about being suspended.
Other players have opted for a subtler approach, with respected veterans using behind-the-scenes channels to suggest to the league that they’d prefer not to be picked. Teemu Selanne went that route in 2012, as did Lidstrom, and there are rumors that Jaromir Jagr may have done the same for this year’s game (a charge he halfheartedly denied).
Everyone likes to get a little time off, so it’s hard to blame the players too much here. But fans who are expected to buy into the All-Star Game as some sort of prestigious event might find it hard not to notice that the actual players seem to view it as a mere annoyance.
With the third pick, Team Absurdity selects: Terrible uniforms
Remember back in the ’80s when the All-Star uniforms were cool? Back when they always went with the classic orange-and-black look with the traditional crest? Weren’t those the best?
[Entire readership stares at me with the “Uh-oh, Grandpa’s going to start telling one of his stories” face.]
OK, you’ll just have to trust me. NHL All-Star uniforms haven’t always been terrible. But then somebody convinced the league that the All-Star Weekend would be a great time to experiment, and everything went downhill. The nightmare started in 1994, with the debut of the purple-and-teal monstrosities that I’m still dealing with in therapy. After a few years of those, we started getting a new look almost every year, most of which fell somewhere between “awful” and “could theoretically be worse.” But at least nothing was as ugly as what we endured in the mid-’90s … until this year.
NHL executives, please listen to me: The marketing consultant in the turtleneck and thick-rimmed glasses running a buzzword-laden PowerPoint about how the new generation of sports fans loves to shatter paradigms is lying to you. He thinks you’re not bright enough to tell that he threw his latest design together in five minutes and is pitching it to you only to win a bet with his creative director. You’re being mocked. Please stop falling for it each and every year.
With the fourth pick, Team Apathy selects: Players who don’t try
To sum up the draft so far: We’ve got the wrong players picked for the game, the ones who are playing don’t really want to be there, and everyone looks ridiculous. So how can we make all of this even worse? If you said, “Nobody should even bother trying,” you win a cookie.
Like many of the problems we’re dealing with, this one isn’t unique to hockey. Nobody plays defense in the NBA All-Star Game, and nobody does much of anything in the Pro Bowl. And to be clear, we’re not suggesting that NHL All-Stars should be throwing big open-ice hits or selling out to block shots. Nobody wants to see somebody get hurt in a meaningless exhibition.
But this is still hockey, and there’s some minimal level of effort required to keep the whole thing from looking ridiculous. Nobody skates hard, nobody bothers to back check, and nobody even thinks about engaging in a puck battle. In recent years, players have even largely stopped taking slap shots. Goals have to be scored via tic-tac-toe passing plays that lead to open-net tap-ins (which aren’t all that hard, considering nobody on the defensive side is even bothering to get a stick in a lane).
It’s just 60 minutes of 10 guys floating up and down the ice at half-speed, fluttering shots at goalies who can barely be bothered to move. Everyone looks hungover. Or embarrassed to be there. Or both.
With the fifth pick, Team Absurdity selects: Fan voting, which has become a joke
Letting fans vote on All-Stars has always been a bit of a gimmick, since there’s a decent chance some of the resulting picks will have more to do with popularity than merit. But that’s fine, because the All-Star Game was meant to be a fun event, and if the fans collectively wanted to see a particular guy in the game, there wasn’t much harm done.
But that was back when voting took a little bit of effort.1 Once technology made it possible for voters to stuff the ballot boxes online, we’d entered the danger zone, and the only thing keeping the whole thing from utter farce was having enough spamming fans that they’d cancel each other out.
That worked for a while (although we did get the inspired Vote for Rory campaign in 2007). But over recent years, most fans stopped caring about the voting process altogether, which left the door open for one fan base to take over every year.
In 2009, Montreal fans got four Habs into the starting lineup. In 2011, all six starters were Penguins or Blackhawks. In 2012, an organized effort by Ottawa fans earned them four of the six spots. And this year it was Chicago fans, apparently inspired by this, who gobbled up five spots. It would have been six, but thankfully the entire nation of Latvia stepped in. No, really.
To be clear, none of this is the fans’ fault, since they’re just following the NHL’s lead. The league treats the whole event like a joke, so the fans do too. And it’s true that most of those votes still went to deserving players. But occasionally it results in a starting spot going to Milan Michalek or Mike Komisarek or, yes, Zemgus Girgensons.
Ultimately, none of it matters, but if you grew up caring about who earned the honor of a starting spot, it’s disheartening to see it all become a punch line.
With the sixth pick, Team Apathy selects: The game, which doesn’t even happen most years
This year’s event marks the first All-Star Game the league has held since 2012. In fact, due to a combination of Olympic breaks and Bettman’s lockouts, there have been only five games in the past decade. At the rate the league is going, it won’t be long before we barely have these things at all!
Wait, maybe that’s a good thing. You know what? Forget I brought it up. Let’s skip to the next section.
With the seventh pick, Team Absurdity selects: The skills competition, which used to be cool, but these days not so much
The skills competition is still a neat idea, and I’d be willing to bet most fans secretly enjoy it more than the actual All-Star Game. But like similar events in other sports, such as the slam dunk contest or the home run derby, it’s aging badly.
The first NHL skills competition was held in 1990, and back then it was undeniably cool to see events like the hardest-shot competition or breakaway relay. Even the normally boring sight of players shooting at Styrofoam targets somehow became interesting.
But over the years, the novelty wore off. The league eventually caught on and tried spicing things up by introducing weird events like whatever this whole thing was. To be fair, the NHL is in a no-win situation here. If it keeps the same events year after year, the whole thing gets stale. If it changes them around, nobody knows what’s going on.
The skills competition will still go ahead on Saturday night, and it will still probably be more fun than Sunday night’s game. It’s just too bad that we’ve seen it all before.
With the eighth pick, Team Apathy selects: The Winter Classic
This pick may come out of left field (literally), but stay with me.
For all the criticism that the NHL takes from all corners, including this one, there’s no question the Winter Classic has been an unqualified success. The game draws huge ratings, generates stunning visuals, and has become a cash cow for the league and teams involved. Hockey fans love it, and even fans of other sports will tune in just for the spectacle.
All of that is great for the league. But it’s terrible for All-Star Weekend.
There was a time when the All-Star Game was the league’s biggest regular-season showcase event. It was the NHL’s big chance to show off for a large audience while marketing its biggest stars in the process. But that’s the Winter Classic’s role now. The league handpicks the teams to make sure that big stars and marketable personalities are involved, then lets the hype machine (and behind-the-scenes TV documentaries) do the rest. And it all works beautifully, partly because the game counts, so everyone involved actually tries.
In the Winter Classic era, the All-Star Game feels like an afterthought, because it is. And that leads to a separate but related problem.
With the ninth pick, Team Absurdity selects: The whole thing becoming a local showcase for the host team
All-Star Weekend has always been at least partly about kicking the tires of the host city. That’s as it should be, since the event gives the league an opportunity to be the center of attention and earn some goodwill among local fans (and just as importantly, potential future fans).
But that can be taken too far, and the league is drifting dangerously close to that point. It’s not enough that the host city gets the game and all the fan events that go with it — they also need a bunch of players, whether they’re deserving or not. And one of them has to be captain. And the rest of them have to be the first picks in the fantasy draft. Pretty soon, we’ll just credit the local team’s players with every goal, whether they touch the puck or not.
Columbus may not be an old hockey market, and the jury is still out on whether it will ever be an especially good one, but Blue Jackets fans have supported the team through tough times and they deserve a weekend in the spotlight, just like Predators fans will for next year’s game. This isn’t a knock on them, because they’re great fans.
But that’s exactly the point: Great fans don’t need to spoon-fed. They should be able to enjoy an All-Star Game without everyone else pretending that the local team is some sort of dynasty.
A little added excitement for the locals here and there is fine. But when your All-Star Game — the supposed showcase of the very best players your league has to offer — involves the words “team captain Nick Foligno,” something has gone horribly wrong.
With the 10th and final pick, Team Apathy selects: Ah, screw it, let’s just make the best of it
Lots of “What’s wrong with the All-Star Game” screeds include a long list of proposed solutions. You won’t find those here, because at some point things become unfixable. But others have tried, with suggestions ranging from merging the All-Star Game and the Winter Classic into one event to just scrapping the whole thing altogether.
But there’s another line of thinking that says none of this matters. All-Star Weekend may be a joke, sure, but it’s an ultimately harmless one, so we should just enjoy it as much as we can instead of complaining about it.
And maybe that’s true. Maybe the league has somehow screwed up the whole production so badly over the years that’s it’s worked its way through to the other side. It’s all too dumb to worry about, so instead of picking at all the flaws, we should just appreciate it for the mess that it is and figure out a way to enjoy it as best we can.
In other words: At this point, nobody should care about the All-Star Game enough to care about it.
I’ll be damned. I think Team Apathy just drafted its new captain.
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