OTTAWA -- The most stunning moment of every NHL All-Star weekend occurs four minutes into the game when, after the overdose on the blaring player introductions and music from the name-brand singers, an eerie pall, broken only by the sound of blades scraping on ice, engulfs the arena.
In this exact instant, give or take 30 seconds, giant thought balloons begin popping up over the well-coiffed heads of 18,000 people who, more or less in unison, realize: "Uh, we paid all that money for this?"
Happens every time, even in sophisticated hockey markets where they probably should know better.
NHL All-Star weekend is terrific. You really should go. The embroidery around the big-ticket events is superb. The mood is festive. A city, even a staid national capital like Ottawa, takes off its rep tie and kicks back for a few days, wallowing in the culture of the sport and the proximity of the best players the NHL can muster. You should just never go to the actual game. You are better off thinking of it like, say, a Cleveland Browns game. The tailgating is guaranteed to be outstanding, in all likelihood superior to what you will see inside. Cheaper, too.
"Every all-star game format has its challenges," John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, said. "The event really is about celebrating the players and letting them connect with the fans. All-Star has a great role. The Fantasy Draft ... it's the one time you get a chance to see the players relax. You see these guys' personalities (interacting) among their peers. The NHL is a long season, a hard season. All-Star is about celebrating the players and celebrating the fans. So at the end of the day, it's more of an exhibition. And I think people know what that is. You make of it what you can. It is what it is."
The only thing more disappointing than the tepid three-hour windup to All-Star weekend, the shinny itself, is a man as conspicuously inventive and bold as Collins had to fall back on "it is what it is."
Make no mistake. The NHL is Commissioner Gary Bettman's fiefdom. It has been ever since 19 years ago he walked in and, according to a former member of the Board of Governors, essentially grabbed the querulous owners by the scruff of the neck and made them sit up and pay attention. Bettman took a self-satisfied Mom-and-Pop shop and made it a bigger business, for better and sometimes worse. He dragged the league into the late 20th century.
But Collins has been the jet fuel, taking it into the 21st century. Maybe beyond.
As one NHL executive put it, "He's really changed the culture of the league."
You probably don't know his name, but you do know his signature as the NHL's P.T. Barnum. While the lawyerly Bettman generally is about taking things step by step, Collins, the business guy, breathlessly rushes to the next thing, pushing, mining for opportunity and never having a bad hair day. The NHL's 1,230 regular season games -- OK, 1,229, after the Winter Classic -- seem to have become an interregnum connecting the new narrative as the league lurches from one special event to the next. John Shannon, the former NHL broadcast executive and now a superb hockey analyst for Sportsnet, a Canadian cable network, would chide Collins about getting back to the NHL's regularly scheduled programming, as it were. But Collins always seemed to be looking at a point on the horizon.
The Winter Classic ... Collins helped turn the frigid and nearly-forgotten 2003 Heritage Classic, which had no visibility in the United States, into a phenomenon, at least in relative terms. HBO's 24/7 ... that's him. The NHL's media and digital revolution also has his fingerprints all over it.
Maybe hockey will remain a niche sport until Hell freezes over and everybody skates to the 7-11, but the NHL punches above its weight as a business. Since Collins, now 50, joined the league from the NFL in November 2006, the NHL's value has grown by about $1 billion.
"When I got here I saw a great plan, a great game, and the athletes and what everybody says about the athletes, that they're the best guys to work with," Collins said. "The relationship with a fan base was very tribal ... Hockey fans were as passionate as football fans and baseball fans, but when you looked at what they did, they didn't do as much. They were more inclined to watch only if their favorite team was involved in the game. Drawing on a lot of the things that I'd learned at the NFL, the relationship with a sport sits with the passion for your team. But that doesn't mean you're going to cancel your Super Bowl party because you don't like the teams (playing in the game). The challenge was to activate our fans."
Collins said that the strategy of events -- season openers in Europe, a heavily promoted national game of Thanksgiving Friday that began this year, the hullabaloo surrounding the New Year's (or thereabouts) outdoor game, the so-called Fantasy Draft and revamping of the All-Star format -- "gives us an opportunity to reach out beyond our core fan base, the casual fans. It's a long season, and the events (are something) in which all the forces can sort of rally around. ... For me, it's just been kinda training our muscles. The ones the league has, the clubs have, the broadcast partners have and our corporate partners have to really gear up for the Stanley Cup playoffs. At the end of the day, that's where hockey is at its best, and that's where the biggest marketing opportunity is for us.
"It's all about polishing the (NHL) shield and making it stand for less of the bureaucratic stuff that all fans sort of stick on a league -- they don't like the schedule, they don't like the officiating. It puts more of a spotlight on the emotional connection that fans have with the game."
Collins, who in 15 NFL years had two tours of duty with the league and worked for the woeful Browns, was initially drawn to football because of NFL Films, which defined the art of sports presentation. Pro football, as much a weekly event as it is a game, best lent itself to the kind of Sturm und Drang the Sabols produce. But Collins, who was involved in the creation of HBO's Hard Knocks series, saw the possibility of slowing down the hurly-burly of the hockey season and telling stories, especially ones that dovetail with the games the league most wants you to see. That means the Winter Classic, of course, with its handmaiden of HBO's 24/7 series. Now the concept has expanded to the premier NBC Sports Network games, which get a sidebar treatment on the NHL Network, masterminded by Ross Greenburg, who left HBO to work for the league.
"I was killing him for three years trying to get a window over there (at HBO for 24/7)," Collins said. "We went to HBO because you know what you're going to get. They're going to spend the production money, emphasize the cinematography, the needle drop music and the narration. And they're going to make magic."
Magic is nice. Business is better. The NHL has pushed for European expansion, not on the ice but in influence, negotiating new TV contracts throughout Europe on a country-by-country basis, weaning hockey fans off the ESPN 360 package. The league also now offers its website in six languages other than English, which is fine until those nasty typos appear. (Says an NHL official, "Oh, we hear about those.") Making the NHL a global brand like, say, the Barclay's Premier League might be as arduous a task as Sisyphus pushing a Rosetta Stone up the hill, but it is miles from the league not even a half-century removed from the so-called Original 6.
With about 30 percent of NHL players coming from Europe -- the 2012 All-Star captains, Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara, are from Sweden and Slovakia -- and the heightened push to mine that market, the time could be right to tweak All-Star, or at least camouflage it, by getting the Players Association on board and taking the weekend to a Euro capital on a rotating basis every five years. (I have been flogging this idea since 1998, the first time NHL players participated in the Olympics.) Shut down for a week, charter jets to Stockholm or Berlin, and market and merchandise the tar out of it. The primary hurdle is NHL franchises clamor to host the event because it boosts their businesses and provides a miniboom for their cities -- Ottawa reportedly expects $30 million in the vague concept of economic spin offs because of the hockey tourism -- but every few years, some expectant city, even Columbus, host for the 2013 game, can bite the bullet for the greater good.
At least that way, the thought bubble -- uh, we paid all that money for this? -- will have an umlaut.