Sunday, January 30, 2011

On the All-Star Game


Maybe I've just done a 180 in my thinking, or perhaps maybe because my team had a goalie in the all-star game for the first time in my lifetime (at least, since I turned 1) and I wanted to tune in to see how much he'd get lit up, but I no longer understand the hatred for the all-star game.

I mean, we all know what it is, don't we? It's an exhibition, a time and place to muck around and have fun without having to care or worry about who wins. It's a time to see players NBC and Versus never show - and since Sidney Crosby is always hurt this time of year, the haters can rejoice because we never hear his name - and we can see what the "other" players in the league are capable of doing. I know, I'm as surprised as you that other players exist in the league.

If we want to drum up interest in the game, I figure there's two solutions. Make it really mean something or turn it so gimmicky that we see things we'll never ever see in a normal game.

Should we decide to make it mean something, our options are limited. Unlike baseball or the NFL, the NHL's regular season actually has significance when determining postseason home-field advantage. Baseball's decision to have the winner of the all-star game determine home field for the World Series is one of the dumber ideas so there's no way the NHL should follow suit.

What are other choices? Bonus pay for the winner? Money is always a good motivation, and even with the bloated contracts these days, a small payday of $25,000 or whatever might make players try harder, play defense, things like that in order to win. Or it might not. I'm open for other suggestions.

I would suggest if we want the game to be more like regular hockey than we need to build the teams more like a standard hockey team. We'll have to add guys like Paul Gaustad, Ryan Callahan, Brent Seabrook, Brooks Orpik - who, much to my surprise, James Mirtle had ranked as the top defensive defenseman in the league at one point - and other players known for their defensive play. Grinders, faceoff specialists, guys like that, and let them hit and shot-block like in their normal day jobs. Linesmen will have to wave guys out of the faceoff circle constantly for no reason like they do now.

And then we'll run the risk of players being injured in a meaningless game. I don't know about you, but I don't want to see Orpik laying out Crosby, or Brent Burns laying out Martin Havlat. It's the same concern as in the Olympics without the whole "playing for the country" part. I doubt Randy Carlyle wants to see Corey Perry crashing the net against Jonas Hiller, all because people want to morph the all-star game into something resembling a real game but with nothing on the line except, perhaps, pride or a handful of dollars.

As it is, some players already ask not to be selected so that they can rest up and heal any nagging injuries they currently have. If they're afraid of getting hurt or reaggravating an injury in a game without hitting, how willing will they be if there's a serious tone to the game?

So why not go all gimmicky? Let's start by suspending some rules - the stupid trapezoid, icing and even offsides. Remove one referee. We hardly need two for this game.

Alternatively, we can use the game to test some rules changes. For instance, instead of removing icing we can use no-touch icing and see how it works in some semblance of a game and get some evidence if it'd be worth making a permanent change.

Let's tweak the scoring. Add basketball/Rock-n-Jock softball type of nuances such as goals will be worth more the further out they're scored. Think of the strategy! Down three? Just keep firing from the point and hope you get something through. Try to catch goalies off-guard from center ice. Complete four passes in a row before scoring to double the goal's value.

Random penalty shots for no reason, just because the referee feels like giving one. Or is the high scoring games the problem? Do people prefer to see 1-0 or 2-1 games?

I love the fantasy draft and how it has the ability to put teammates against each other, which granted was possible during the lame North America-v-the World format. It leads to moments like Kris Letang's interview this year, when he, perhaps jokingly or perhaps not, said he made a giveaway that led to a goal to help even the score for Pittsburgh teammate Marc-Andre Fleury, who was getting shelled for the other team.

Thus, more heel turns! Let's see the Sedins playing on different teams but still going in on a 2-on-1 trying to score in the same net anyway. Then one of them can double-cross the other and head in the opposite direction without passing the puck. Or Jonas Hiller stepping aside to allow Corey Perry score.

I guess the scorn for the all-star game is it's not a real game, not real hockey, right? Did we ever pretend that it was? I always loved the game because it meant players who should hate or at least be very competitive against each other put aside their loyalties and joke around together like old buddies. Witness Alex Ovechkin and Fleury joking with each other during the skills competition, or Fleury and Carey Price, who had dueling taunting poses after games in Montreal recently. That's why I like all star games. The result, the playing style was irrelevant to me. It was nice just seeing the camaraderie.

Of course, my favorite idea for improving the all-star game is play it outside. That doesn't seem likely to happen. Frankly, I still view the Winter Classic as more of a gimmick than the all-star game, and I'll still hate the former much more than the latter. But I won't get started on that again.

Perhaps one solution is to make sure every team has someone who plays in the game itself. The NHL fixed that in one way by ensuring that at least one veteran or rookie from every team participated in at least the skills competition. Maybe the league should go one step further. My interest in MLB's all-star game is only to see how the players from my team fare. OK, the player, singular. The Pirates haven't exactly been good lately to have multiple all-stars.

The results of our hockey teams are live-or-die for many of us and it's nice having this exhibition where the results don't matter. The all-star game isn't something that should be taken seriously or take as much heat as it does. If someone chooses to be apathetic towards the event, fine, can't blame you. That's how I felt for a while.

I've always enjoyed the skills competition more than the game and probably always will. The all-star game isn't perfect, and it's not a real NHL game and likely never will be, but I fail to see why it has to be.

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