NASHVILLE — Once he had accepted the oversized check worth $1 million from the commissioner and been lifted into the air by three teammates like they were attending his Bar Mitzvah, after his pregnant wife finished talking with reporters and the Hockey Hall of Fame took his helmet, when the roars of “M-V-P! M-V-P” finally ceased and fans once again flooded the ballot box with his name, John Scott thought back to the moment when he scored on the first shot of his first shift in his first NHL All-Star Game.
“Once again,” he said, “you can’t make this stuff up.”
Dramatic in its course, unscripted until the very end, what happened Sunday night at Bridgestone Arena—and, really, across the whole honky-tonking weekend in downtown Nashville—defied all expectation. The 3-on-3 tournament debuted to rave reviews from its participants and pumped life into an event sorely needing resuscitation, far better than the 5-on-5 snoozers of years past. P.K. Subban sprawled on the ice to block shots and received a back massage from a singer-turned-celebrity coach. Instead of filling their usual roles as traffic cones, four goaltenders combined to keep the championship to a 1–0 decision.
The second hit in All-Star Game history was recorded by Scott on Chicago superstar Patrick Kane, whose exit in the semifinals along with the rest of the Central Division squad saved the league from broadcasting another round of hearty boos. A coach’s challenge was enacted, overturning a goal based on goalie interference. And by the end, Twitter accounts for a dozen NHL teams had cast votes for #VoteMVPScott, even though the Pacific Division captain wasn’t announced among the three finalists, joining the legion of fans who left the NHL with no choice but to honor the write-in candidate with a trophy and a mini-van.
It was wacky. It was weird. It was perfect.
“I don't think you can top this,” Scott said.
A few minutes before arriving for his press conference, the 33-year-old forward had walked into a second-story private lounge, where fellow All-Stars and their families mingled. He was the last one there after finishing a few television interviews. Once Scott entered, everything else stopped. The whole room showered him with a loud ovation.
They were all aware of his situation—the joke campaign that brought him here, the trade that shipped him from Arizona to Montreal, the ensuing demotion to the minor leagues, the high-ranking league official who called and wondered if Scott’s two young daughters would even be proud of him attending. They also knew they were supporting characters in this impossible story. Who could top the 6'8", 260-pound Scott scoring twice in the semifinals and dropping the gloves with Kane in a fake fight?
“Kane would’ve suckered him if they had really went at it,” Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien joked.
Still, something fresh may have begun along Broadway. Around this time last year, the NHL believed a 3-on-3 All-Star Game would wait until at least 2017. The NHLPA had concerns about the proposition, fearing exhaustion in an exhibition. “Lukewarm,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly described the reaction. “It wasn’t an absolute no, but it looked like it was probably going to be a longer process than just a simple handshake and let’s move forward.” But Predators’ management, led by GM David Poile, pushed hard to introduce the new format in their building. The process was expedited accordingly and commissioner Gary Bettman created the $1 million prize for the winning team to provide extra incentive.
“I think we understand the challenges of trying to make the All-Star events and weekend compelling from a fan’s perspective,” Daly said in November, around the time the switch was announced. “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.”
After a brief “feeling-out period” in the first game, as several players described it, the pace picked up. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby drew gasps with flashy glove saves, then gave way to Jaromir Jagr, the third oldest All-Star ever, who took a long feed from teenage rookie Dylan Larkin and deked Holtby on a breakaway. Anaheim netminder John Gibson halted a one-timer with a sprawling toe save, splitting his legs like a snapping wishbone. Three-time Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron back-checked like the night counted for real.
“It was more competitive for the 5-on-5 All-Star Game, I think,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. “Guys don’t want to get hurt. A lot of guys are in the race for playoffs and want to go back and continue to do that, but I think this one was pretty good. There’s a lot of ice, so you can’t really play physical or anything like that, but you can still give it a little bit.”
Enjoyed as the three competitive games were, particularly relative to the 2015 installment in Columbus that finished with 27 combined goals, few moments received louder cheers than when the sellout crowd realized Scott would be named MVP. Even Scott seemed surprised, since Johnny Gaudreau, Taylor Hall and Roberto Luongo were the three announced finalists. “Me?” he asked his teammates. Soon, though, Bettman was handing him the $1 million check. Mark Giordano, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns were scooping him into the air. The mini-van was driven onto the ice. And when asked later if he could sum up the course of this weekend, Scott simply replied, “No.”