When hockey scholars look back a half-century from now at the 2011 NHL All-Star game, they will identify Friday -- draft night for Team Lidstrom and Team Staal -- as the day the event, a staple of the calendar since 1947, officially jumped the shark.
And no, we don't mean Dan Boyle, the Shark.
In an effort to infuse life into the steaming carcass of the hockey portion of what actually remains a corporate winner and pleasant mid-season schmoozefest (despite the primacy of the Jan. 1 Winter Classic), NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan, a driving force behind the post-lockout rule changes, came up with this notion of a player draft done by the All-Star captains. It's an homage to sticks-in-a-pile shinny. And to Shanahan's credit, the run-up to the game has been more visible than usual. For a change, hockey wonks are doing mock drafts, not mocking the All-Star Game.
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Of course, a light bulb is also more visible just before its filament burns out. The All-Star weekend, despite its significance as a business venture, has been running on fumes for years as far as most hockey consumers are concerned. The Shanahan gambit smacks of inspiration and desperation. And this is its downside: the Lidstroms vs. the Staals does historical disservice to the game
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Now, even if you don't care much for the All-Star on-ice pantomime -- the national anthem in Chicago during Gulf War 1991 was an all-timer, but two years later the goal by special "commissioner's selection" Brad Marsh (an almost inert veteran defenseman who set the career mark for fewest tallies by a player with more than 1,100 games on his NHL resume) basically ended things for this typist -- at least you could discern how All-Star worked even as it underwent changes.
Whether it was the initial All-Stars vs. the Stanley Cup champion, Wales vs. Campbell, or the cleansed East vs. West, you pretty much knew who was playing against whom. Even when the league mixed the paint with North America vs. the World for a five-year period starting in 1998, an innate logic drove the format: for the first time, NHL players were participating in the Olympics. The new global alignment added luster to the affair, at least temporarily.
In this era of the unbalanced schedule, where Eastern and Western at times seem like separate universes more than separate conferences, the old formula would seem to have value.
But here we are in Raleigh, trying to generate even a modest percentage of the excitement that surrounded the 2009 event in hockey-obsessed Montreal. And as the noble captains get ready to reorder, if not rock, the hockey world, one question: how in the world did the NHL choose Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom to be the captains?
Unless I've been misreading the memo for the past five-and-a-half years, the league's marketing strategy has centered around two players: Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. They were the centerpieces of the 2011 Winter Classic. They were the focus of HBO's 24/7, which did more for the game than any innovation since the goalie mask. They have carried water for the NHL -- back to that Winter Classic, again -- since they joined it. They are fabulous players and divergent personalities.
Yes, Ovechkin is having a down year. So? And yes, Crosby is concussed and decided not attend the weekend, but the NHL wasn't sure of that when the captains were named. And even if Crosby were a no-go all along, he could have drawn up his list and corralled a lieutenant, say Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, as TSN's Dave Hodge has suggested, and had him draft Team Crosby. (This is how we work it at the bar on Thursday night for our pools.) If the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry is a cornerstone of the league, the NHL missed a chance to add another small dimension to it.
The only other mildly intriguing possibility for the captains would have been 2010 Hart Trophy-winner Henrik Sedin and his brother Daniel. Team H. Sedin vs. Team D. Sedin ... bet that would have really gotten their zygote.
Instead of a Crosby surrogate and Ovechkin, the NHL will be trotting out the star of the hometown Carolina Hurricanes and the grand Detroit Red Wings defensemen. If the league wanted name recognition or personality ... well, it can do better next year in Ottawa.
Staal plays well locally -- really well locally this year -- but he is not a commanding national presence. He figures to provide the fun quotient to the draft although it is unlikely he will be Jerry Lewis to Lidstrom's Dean Martin. (Ask your grandparents.) Lidstrom, arguably among the best five defensemen in history, is Mr. Perfect, not Mr. Effervescence. The only time he wasn't perfect was in 2009 when he missed the All-Star Game and was suspended for a subsequent game against Columbus.
To recap, a man can go from being punished for missing the All-Star Game one year to choosing his very own All-Star team the next time it's played. Is America a great country or what?
Staal and Lidstrom are both blessed with lively hockey minds, but sadly the NHL isn't giving them the fullest opportunity to employ them. Why did the league feel obliged to name alternate captains? (Mike Green and Ryan Kesler are with Staal, and Patrick Kane and Martin St. Louis are with Lidstrom.) The honor of an "A" does nothing more than drain the pool of players eligible for the actual draft, eliminating an element of drama.
So now we wait. Will Eric Staal select or snub fellow All-Star Marc Staal? Will Lidstrom channel Chris Rock or even 30 Rock? Stay tuned, especially if it's 10 below where you live.