By Stu Hackel
The NHL announced the rest of the All-Star rosters today and while that might have some people excited, we haven't written a word about the game. Why? Because in the last 20 years, the NHL All-Star Game has become nothing more than a glorified pond hockey match that does nothing to showcase what makes the sport great.
Hockey is speed and skill vs. resistance, and if you remove one half of that equation, you kill the appeal. In the All-Star Game, there's no resistance, so there's no intensity. That's been true regardless of the format changes over the years and there's absolutely no reason to think that this forthcoming choose-up-sides format is going to produce a different result.
In fact, this year's game, despite its innovative and novel approach, could be reduced to more of a high-level no-check beer league contest than ever before. Sure, the players will justifiably be honored to be there and they will always give it their best, but the teams really have little to play for and the fans have little to cheer. It's not even as if this time anyone will be defending the pride of one conference against another, or one hemisphere against another.
If it's Team Crosby against Team Toews, what does that mean exactly? And if regular season linemates like the Sedins or Toews and Kane end up playing against each other, won't that eliminate some potentially great offensive chemistry and negate what little the All-Star Game normally offers up to get excited about?
This isn't to say the All-Star Weekend is totally useless and should be scrapped. The Rookie Skills competition will give fans an introduction to the best first-year talent in the game. The entire weekend is always a good promotion and celebration for the local team and the game in the city where it's played. It's a great marketing opportunity for the NHL to host its sponsors. The league wisely partners with a local charity and raises a good deal of money in donations. And the event gives lots of hockey people a chance to get together during the season.
But as for the game itself, it's a dud, year after year. Yes, you may see some nifty passing and deft shooting by some wonderfully skilled players, but they don't get much opposition and the poor goalies are left hanging with little to no support. The atmosphere in the arena almost always reflects the lack of intensity as the fans don't have much of a passionate interest in who wins. This year, the fans in Raleigh, NC, who at least in the past might have cheered nominally for the Eastern Conference because the home team plays in it, will now cheer for whatever team picks Eric Staal. Or Cam Ward. Wait, what if they are on different teams?
Once upon a time, the Stanley Cup champions played the All-Stars at the champ's barn in the final preseason game before the puck dropped in earnest. Those were some pretty good games, and the crowd at least got into it, but it would be hard to duplicate that now. The league has to choose an All-Star host city long before the Cup is won and if you brought the champs into a different building to play the All-Stars as visitors, you wouldn't have the same atmosphere as we saw in the Original Six era, although you still might get a better game.
In 1979 with the Challenge Cup and again in 1987 with Rendez-Vous '87, the NHL All-Stars played the Soviet National team, and those had the added benefits of the Cold War and contrasting styles of play as a backdrop. But that can't be duplicated now. Some have suggested that the NHL All-Stars play the KHL All-Stars, but until relations between the two leagues improve, that won't be considered.
Put the All-Star Game outdoors and make that the Winter Classic? Why throw a dog of a game into such a valuable time slot? It won't make the actual game one bit better.
So until something better comes along, we are likely stuck with a game that won't put the best face on the sport while masquerading as a special event. For years, hockey people have reworked the All-Star Game format while trying to come up with something that works. But the sad truth may be that nothing will.