DeCock

NHL tries to jazz up its All-Star Game

Staff WriterJanuary 25, 2011 

— The Triangle will discover this week the dirty little secret of the NHL All-Star Game: What actually happens on the ice is the least important part of the entire weekend.

This is a hockey convention, for owners and sponsors and players and media alike, and at the end of it all, there's a game, and then everyone goes home.

Hockey's problem is that its All-Star Game is the least representative of what makes the sport great: There's no hitting, no intensity and no incentive for players to provide either.

Even as spectacle, it has been overshadowed by the Winter Classic, which gets the prime date (New Year's Day) and has become a crossover event that even non-hockey fans anticipate.

For most players, the All-Star Game is their only chance to take a short vacation in the middle of the season; not being selected is often less of a snub and more of an excuse to hang out with the boys in Las Vegas or take the family to the Bahamas for the weekend.

Yet the fans keep voting in great numbers, much debate attaches to the players chosen, and much pride is vicariously assumed by supporters of each team when their heroes are selected to participate.

In the olden days, part of the appeal of an All-Star Game - and baseball stands out here - was the opportunity to see star players at a time when few games were televised. There was also an innocence back then, before multimillion-dollar salaries and everything that comes with it, which meant who won actually mattered to the players involved.

Now, in every sport, they're just trying to avoid getting hurt, while fans can see every player in every league on an everyday basis on TV. But there's still something stirring about seeing the best stand shoulder to shoulder with the best, and that creates enough enduring interest to keep these all-star games relevant.

The NHL has openly acknowledged, over the years, the tension between fan interest in the game and the quality of play, and it has tried in a variety of different ways to infuse some oomph into the latter. The league tried pitting North America against the World, but those boundaries proved too broad to create antipathy. (At the time, it was suggested the NHL take it a step further with a mini international tournament.)

Major League Baseball made a good-faith attempt to put something on the line when it gave home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league in the All-Star Game, but that unsurprisingly was too abstract a goal in July. For the NBA, there was a golden era when the dunk contest was bigger than the game itself.

So now the NHL tries again, upping the ante with this fantasy draft. Having players choose sides may not encourage any more physical play or create any more incentive to win, but it certainly creates, out of thin air, a compelling made-for-TV event on Friday night when the actual draft happens.

And if, over the course of the weekend, Team Staal and Team Lidstrom manage to generate any frisson - may we suggest some sort of side bet making it worth everyone's while? - then the new format will be considered a rousing success. If the game passes with the usual tepid drama, nothing will have been lost, either.

After all, the All-Star Game is not really about the hockey. It's about hockey: a celebration of the game itself, and the stars that make it worth watching.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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