In an effort to revamp an All-Star Game that produced 29 total goals during an open-ice slumber party in Columbus last season, the NHL formally announced on Wednesday its overhauled format for the next edition in Nashville: a three-on-three tournament with $1 million awarded to the winning side.
Each division—Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific—will field an 11-person squad comprised of one captain, voted by fans, and 10 others chosen by NHL Hockey Operations, broken down into six forwards, three defensemen and two goalies. Coaches whose teams lead their respective divisions in winning percentage by Jan. 9 will helm the benches and, according to Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, all 30 teams will have at least one representative at Bridgestone Arena on Jan. 31, 2016. The Eastern and Western Conference divisions will each face each other in 20-minute games, then the winners will meet for the seven-figure prize. There will be no mandate to have rookies selected to the teams.
“I think we understand the challenges of trying to make the All-Star events and weekend compelling from a fan’s perspective,” Daly said. “As I said, I think that’s a challenge in all sports, but I think it’s a particular challenge in our sport. It’s highlighted by the passion, intensity, physicality, all of which are difficult to replicate in an All-Star format. You’re always looking for ways to reinvent the weekend to make it fresh for fans to provide a unique angle.”
The change coincides with the NHL’s switch to three-on-three overtime this season, which through Wednesday night had seen 67.8% of games that advanced beyond regulation end before the shootout. (At that date last season, with a four-on-four overtime format, that rate hovered at 44.1%.) However, according to Daly, discussions about switching the All-Star Game to a mini-tournament “pre-existed any discussion of going to three-on-three for OT, at least it was going on at the same time.”
At first, Daly said, the league had planned to keep its usual five-on-five format through Nashville and hold off on more drastic changes until 2017, sensing hesitation from the NHLPA.
“We got a pushback from Nashville’s management team and ownership group to try to get it done for this year so they could introduce it in Nashville,” Daly said. “We put some flesh on the bones on the concept over the summertime. I’d say the initial reaction we got from the players’ association was lukewarm on it. It wasn’t an absolute no. We usually work through these things.
“But it looked like it was probably going to be a longer process than just a simple handshake and let’s move forward. At some point during the process, I certainly was operating under the impression that it was probably going to be too aggressive a change to get done this year, but when we knew how badly the Nashville club was interested in it, we pushed it and expedited it and ultimately got the union to be receptive to it and we got it done.”
The NHLPA’s executive committee, comprised of representatives from all 30 teams, voted on the change late last week and reports began trickling out on Tuesday night, including word of the $1 million prize pool, which according to Daly was Commissioner Gary Bettman’s idea. Unveiled in Wednesday’s news release, however, was this interesting wrinkle: The two captains of the winning conferences in the Jan. 30 skills competition get to choose whether their intra-division game goes first or second the next night, potentially gaining a rest advantage.
“We tried to build a format that would be manageable from the players’ perspective,” Daly said. “Certainly there will be a lot of exertion and energy and you try to manage that as best you can in the construct you built, but also you understand that you need to build in sufficient rest time so the players continue to perform optimally. Part of what makes the three-on-three compelling, it’s the scoring chances, it’s the up and down, it’s the chaotic nature of play, and certainly part of that is players on the ice not being able to change, them getting physically exhausted. That really is part of the format that makes the product more compelling.”