John Scott reported to the St. John’s Ice Caps of the American Hockey League during the weekend, all but putting to bed the idea that the former Arizona Coyote will play in the upcoming NHL All-Star Game in Nashville.
Many people are sick of talking about Scott, a 6'8", 33-year old forward who has racked up only 11 points and 542 penalty minutes during his 285-game NHL career. Even more are sick of discussing his importance to the sport itself, after he was voted overwhelmingly into the All-Star Game as the Pacific Division captain. It’s as if it’s the end of class and we’re tired of hearing about the topic. But that doesn’t mean the NHL can’t learn from this moving forward. Or, more specifically, the league should now be taking a hard look at how it handles fan voting after its blatant fumbling of the Scott All-Star situation.
UPDATE: On Tuesday morning, the NHL announced that Scott will indeed be allowed to participate as planned.
There have been some, most notably Don Cherry in his Coach’s Corner segment during the weekend, who blamed voters for Scott getting traded to Montreal and out of the Western Conference. Grapes went so far as to call the fans who voted for Scott “jerks” who set off a chain reaction that led to four players (Scott included) being traded. Scott ended up on an AHL salary when he had been earning NHL dollars, even though he was sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch most of the time.
TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie, one of the most respected and connected voices in the game, tweeted that Scott was asked by the NHL and the Coyotes to bow out of the All-Star Game. Scott’s Friday trade to the Canadiens organization and subsequent demotion to the AHL could’ve been a result of his refusal. And while I have always been a fan of Cherry for his entertainment value and steadfast devotion to promoting minor hockey in Canada, he and others who blame the fans have missed the point entirely.
When it comes to fans and viewership, the NHL is still light years away from the popularity that the NFL, MLB and NBA enjoy in North America. This season in particular the league hasn’t gotten a lot of lucky bounces: Teams are scoring fewer goals than they have in years. Most of the Canadian teams are floundering. The league’s new golden goose, Connor McDavid of the Oilers, hasn’t played since Nov. 3 due to a broken collarbone. The Winter Classic was a dud with TV ratings to prove it. And let’s not forget the horrendous off-season the league had PR-wise due to a number of players having serious problems with the law.
So when the John Scott All-Star campaign took off, the NHL missed an opportunity to gain a little momentum through attention and make its fans happy. We hear rumblings year after year about how the NHL’s All-Stars, the league’s elite, prefer to take a few days off during the dog days of the season instead of actually attending the glorified game of shinny. But here we had Scott treating it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him and his family. He wanted to go. Fans wanted him to go. The All-Star Game is generally panned as a game itself and the new 3-on-3 format did little to inspire fan excitement, but Scott wanted to be there. I couldn’t care less about the game itself, but like many, I would’ve tuned in just to see him. His lumbering about the ice certainly would break up what’s sure to be a monotony of end-to-end passes and the like.
Why should Scott be punished because fans showed initiative and got involved in the voting process? By denying their choice, the league shows that it is clearly out of touch with a large portion of its most devoted customers, perhaps even an entire group of fans who I’ll call the “social media generation,” for better or worse. The NHL has never had the kind of fanbase in North America that the other major pro leagues enjoy. By denying the people what they want, the league has further distanced itself from fans it should be fighting to please, not alienate.
What is the league so afraid of? What it has done with Scott is a pathetic ploy to protect whatever dignity it believes the All-Star Game has to begin with, a dignity the league inadvertently undermined with its playground style "fantasy draft" that left Phil Kessel famously squirming at being chosen last in 2011. The NHL is clearly eager to avoid shenanigans like the “Vote for Rory” campaign, which nearly got pylon defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick elected in 2007 only to fall mysteriously short by the deadline. And then there was last year when the more legitimate, but relatively obscure Zemgus “The Latvian Locomotive” Girgensons of the Sabres shocked North America by riding a tide of support from fans in his native country to lead the All-Star voting.
The rub is that if the game itself is viewed as something of a joke by the league’s biggest stars, the NHL should have embraced the chance to crown Scott and his “Aw, shucks” demeanor about the whole thing as the king of the event. Because really, what player who has already been to a handful of All-Star Games is still eager to go? Jaromir Jagr, arguably one of the biggest and most interesting stories of the season, tweeted twice about his lack of interest. Even if his tweets were in jest, there is still an underlying problem if you can’t get the faces of the league to at least feign interest in the game. In past years, superstars such as Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Lidstrom have either been fined for not showing up or were marched to the event at gunpoint.
If Scott was treated as he should have been by the league and welcomed with open arms to the All-Star Game, no one would’ve pointed and laughed. The fans who voted for him would have felt good about the power they have to influence the made-for-TV event. Scott himself would’ve had a story to tell his grandchildren. (He even had special t-shirts made.) And it’s doubtful that other players would’ve shunned him in any way: If anything, because of his genuine interest in the event, he likely would’ve seen more ice time and had more opportunities with the puck than ever.
The NHL is in a fight for casual fans as a means to grow the game. It clearly has an interest in expanding to non-traditional markets such as Las Vegas. Here was an opportunity to embrace a non-traditional element in the game. Instead, we get the same boring old league we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. The fans—the kids in class if you will—had grown tired of what they were being fed. By crushing John Scott as an All-Star, the league has done nothing to please the passionate legion of fans it does have.