The NHL All-Star Game exists for three audiences.
There are the fans in the city in which it’s held, who fill seats in the arena and jam the convention center Fan Fest for a glimpse at the Selke Trophy; the sponsors, who fill suites in the arena and get that photo op with Adam Pelech they always wanted; and, most of all, the viewers tuning in around the world.
OK, make that four audiences, including me.
I love NHL All-Star Weekend. I say that without hesitation or the kind of inherent cynicism you might have expected from this columnist or anyone native to the great state of New Jersey. Not always for what happens on the ice, because your mileage for exhibition hockey will vary. But because of its unpredictability in form and format.
It’s where the NHL allows itself to get a little weird — witness this season’s shootout in the Bellagio’s fountains, or that time Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks had a shootout attempt in a Chewbacca mask.
But there are times when we had to force the league to get a little weirder, like when we helped elect John Scott to the All-Star Game in 2016 and, despite the NHL’s objections, he played and won MVP honors.
Sure, it cost us the ability to vote in players, but the proof is in the ratings.
Here are eight other ways the NHL can make a great event even better: some of it logical, and some of it delightfully weird.
Gimmicks within the gimmick
I never want to see a 5-on-5 NHL All-Star Game again. They stink. The problem is that your mind has been trained to see 10 skaters and two goalies and think “competitive hockey game,” when in the All-Star Game the 5-on-5 hockey is played at one-third speed and with one-tenth the intensity. The further away from “real hockey” the game gets, the more entertaining it’ll be.
The 3-on-3 tournament is the best form of the modern All-Star Game we’ve seen. First, because it looks nothing like regulation hockey but looks everything like the current overtime format that so many of us still find enthralling. Second, because it generates so many chances in an event that should be all about the action. Third, and the players themselves have told me this: There’s no hiding in the 3-on-3. Any player who thinks he can “do Vegas” and then lollygag in the All-Star Game will be absolutely exposed.
So I’m down with this format but there can still be variations on a successful theme. Blow up the divisional tournament format for something more akin to a Ryder Cup of mini games between Olympic hockey powers. Incorporate women’s players into the game, rather than the skills competition — I’m pretty sure Marie-Philip Poulin playing on a line with Connor McDavid would break Canada.
Get creative with the teams in the 3-on-3 tournament, while keeping the undeniable thrills of that system.
To that end, bring back the fantasy draft!
For three glorious All-Star Games, the NHL adopted one of its most audacious formats: a fantasy draft, in which two captains selected their sides for the skills competition and the game itself. In 2011, it was Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom vs. Carolina’s Eric Staal in Raleigh. In 2012, it was Boston’s Zdeno Chara vs. the Senators’ Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa. In 2015, we had Chicago’s Jonathan Toews vs. the Blue Jackets’ Nick Foligno in Columbus.
From what I gather, the format was changed during the course of negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA, mainly due to some concern from the PA that the “fantasy draft” format was putting undue pressure on the players. Specifically, because someone had to be picked last. In Year 1, that was Phil Kessel, sitting alone as Alex Ovechkin snapped a photo of him. To make up for the “embarrassment,” the NHL gave Kessel $20,000 to donate to his favorite charity and a brand new Honda. Similar arrangements were made for other Messrs. Irrelevant.
I think, by and large, the players liked this format. I know the fans did, as the All-Stars would all mingle in a banquet hall — and stay lubricated — while waiting for their names to be called. It was like the Golden Globes used to be, before all the unpleasantness.
If we can get past the killjoys who found it to be too negative and those who were overprotective of athletes who get paid millions of dollars to be objects of scorn, I think it’d be a blast to bring back.
The biggest buzz for the 2022 NHL All-Star Game didn’t come from any player making their respective teams. Rather, it arrived when the NHL revealed it was doing Las Vegas-themed events and holding them outdoors.
The league has inched toward localizing skills competitions before. Remember how there was that St. Louis Arch in the middle of the ice for the Topgolf-like competition in 2020? But the NHL has never done anything like holding an event in the fountain at the Bellagio or doing a casino-style card-shooting game, like they are in Las Vegas.
I’m all-in on those events, and anything that’s drawn from the city where the All-Star Game is held. An Old West shooting gallery in Dallas, complete with those spinning targets. Aerial passes into a giant Starbucks cup in Seattle. Build the best pizza by shooting pucks at different toppings. You could play that in New York and Chicago!
Upgrade the TV tech
NHL All-Star Weekend is the most made-for-TV thing the NHL does outside of the shootout. Cameras circle the ice. Players are miked up with impunity. No helmets during the skills competition!
I’d love to see more innovation in the ways the skills events and the actual game are presented to the audience at home. We’re certainly getting closer with the advent of puck- and player-tracking technology. But there are other ways to enhance the coverage.
One idea I support comes from Olympic swimming. When Katie Ledecky competes, she’s not just swimming against the competitors that jumped off the wall. She’s also chasing history, which is represented by that CGI line in front of her (or, usually, behind her). That would be pretty cool to see in the fastest skater event, for example.
The more bells and whistles the better, I say.
A new prize: No escrow for winning players
One of the true struggles for the NHL All-Star Game is motivation. Having “pride” on the line is the kayfabe motivation in any sport’s all-star game, but no one is skating extra hard on Saturday night because they’re “reppin’ the Metro.” There’s no home-ice advantage being dangled like in Major League Baseball. The NHL doesn’t have the ego and personal animosity that make the NBA All-Star Game so watchable.
In the 3-on-3 era, the NHL has put up $1 million to be split between the players. That hasn’t exactly moved the needle. So why not really up the ante?
Not only does the winning divisional team get its share of $1 million, but those players don’t have to pay escrow in the following season.
See, now we’re talking. NHL players hate escrow, even though it’s a cash withholding that could be returned to them. To win a tournament and have the full freight of your salary paid to you next season … I mean, there is something slightly dystopian about it. But really, friends, what doesn’t feel that way these days?
The only tricky part: Who picks up the escrow slack for these winners? In theory, the rest of the NHLPA. But if you really wanted to make the All-Star Game spicy, have the rest of the all-stars pick up the winners’ escrow percentages. Although that might impact player attendance in this event, come to think of it …
More non-hockey events
I’ve never really understood why the NHL All-Star skills competition had to be restricted just to hockey skills. We’re constantly talking about how vital it is to see the personality of the players. I feel like we’re going to see so many more facets of that if they’re playing ice dodgeball like the Carolina Hurricanes. Or sling-shooting their teammates down the ice in human bowling. Or having a tricycle race on the ice.
OK, so basically I want the NHL players doing all the wacky goofball things that fans do between periods at games. Well, except for the long-range puck-shooting competition. We’re pretty sure they’re good at that.
Let’s play Duck Hunt
The NHL tried to upgrade the tech in 2020, during the shot accuracy competition. They ditched the traditional targets for an LED screen in front of the goal, with little squares that had the player’s last name, number, team logo and number of All-Star appearances. When the pucks would hit them, they’d play a little “ding” noise, like you just summoned someone at a motel’s front desk. The target would then crumble, like Super Mario smashed it with his fist. (The plumber, not the Penguin.)
Forgetting some of the oddly self-loathing aspects of the event — having players shooting at their team and themselves? — the tech was a bit wonky and lacked the visceral satisfaction of previous incarnations of the shot accuracy competition.
We’re in an ASMR era. The sound of Styrofoam targets being shattered by whizzing pucks should be in vogue again. Ever since 2018, when they went with digital targets, shot accuracy has been the NHL All-Star Game version of boneless wings; similar in taste, but without the elemental gratification.
In other words, the NHL didn’t make a mistake in upgrading the tech, but rather misapplied it. Tech should be the point of the event.
What the league should do is invest in a gigantic LED screen that can be wheeled out on the ice and then have players shoot pucks at moving digital targets. Could you imagine an NHL All-Star Game version of Nintendo “Duck Hunt” on the ice? It’s a league full of Canadian kids who grew up on farms and European kids who grew up on first-person shooter games. It’s the perfect event.
I think the issue here is return on investment. I mean, you can’t run out and buy a 30-foot-high shatterproof LED screen when the Coyotes will be playing in front of 5,000 fans the next four seasons, can you?
Finally, three words: surprise veteran entrants
It’s the NHL “save streak” event, the one in which goalies compete to have the longest streak of consecutive saves against All-Star shooters. Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko wins the event. He’s feeling pretty good about himself. The PA announcer says, “Hold on Thatcher, we understand there’s a late entry in this competition.”
Suddenly, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s theme song hits — because you have to have the right music to pop the crowd — and here comes 57-year-old Dominik Hasek, waddling out in full gear and a black Buffalo Sabres “goat head” jersey. “In order to claim your prize, you’ve gotta survive THE DOMINATOR, DOMINIK HASEK.”
Hasek proceeds to make 35 saves in a row while the arena echoes with “You’ve still got it!” chants. He wins the prize money and is immediately presented with a contract offer from Kyle Dubas …
Or maybe it’s Ray Bourque coming out for the shot accuracy challenge, as an eight-time winner of that event. Or Peter Forsberg in the trick-shot competition, pulling off “The Forsberg.” Nostalgia provides a potent high when taken in small doses. The All-Star Game is the perfect venue for it, because it’s a celebration of hockey, its skill level and its inherent weirdness.
Enjoy the weekend, everyone!
Three things on Rocky Wirtz
Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz adamantly refuses to speak on Kyle Beach’s lawsuit.
1. On Oct. 26, 2021, the Chicago Blackhawks released a statement addressed to “our Fans, Partners and Community” regarding the Brad Aldrich investigation. It said that the trust they had with these constituencies was “shaken” after that investigation revealed how the team mishandled Kyle Beach’s allegations of sexual assault by Aldrich in 2010.
The last line of that statement read: “To our fans, employees, players, partners, sponsors, and the entire Blackhawks community — Thank you for standing by us. As we move forward, we are committed to continuing to earn your trust and support both on and off the ice.”
On Wednesday, at a town hall meeting with the community, Blackhawks CEO Danny Wirtz was essentially asked about how the team has earned that trust, or intends to do so, by ensuring that if another similar situation ever happens, that player is empowered to remedy it. His father, owner Rocky Wirtz, hijacked the question to say it’s “none of your business” what the team is doing.
So about that commitment to earning back trust and support: It’s emptier than United Center will be for the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.
2. Rocky Wirtz’s reaction is an absolute embarrassment to the Blackhawks and the National Hockey League. It’s the reaction of someone who believes an internal investigation, a few high-profile resignations, his plausible deniability, a $2 million fine from the NHL and another significant cash outlay to Beach in their legal settlement means it’s a settled matter, that it’s in the rearview mirror.
That is just not how this works. Not when Chicago fans have openly discussed the amount of work the franchise needs to do to earn back their trust. Not when Rocky Wirtz responds to a reasonable question with unconscionable entitlement.
The Blackhawks used to be the gold standard in the NHL, and now they’re just in a meltdown. From a perception standpoint, the only difference between Rocky Wirtz and his father Bill Wirtz is that fans in Chicago could actually watch the town hall.
3. My friend Mark Lazerus asked the initial question about the Aldrich investigation and wrote a remarkable column for The Athletic about it. He also passed along this statement from Wirtz after the town hall, for what it’s worth:
Rocky Wirtz apologizes in a statement for having “crossed the line.” pic.twitter.com/83ZdwOmcBj
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) February 3, 2022
If it’s such great work, just, you know, tell us about it next time.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Philipp Grubauer
It has been a nightmare season for the Seattle Kraken‘s prized free agent. But not on Wednesday, when Grubauer made 19 saves to blank the New York Islanders 3-0 for the first shutout in franchise history. His save percentage jumped to .887. To the moon!
Loser: Jack Campbell
The good news: Campbell is an All-Star. The bad news: Since being named an All-Star on Jan. 13, Campbell has given up 17 goals in five games for an .848 save percentage. The weird news: He’s 3-1-0 with a no-decision in those games.
Winner: Tom Wilson
Alex Ovechkin had to pull out of the NHL All-Star Game after entering the COVID-19 protocol Wednesday. Enter Tom Wilson to fill his spot. He’s had a solid season, with 31 points in 43 games. But the saltiness of other fan bases over “Tom Wilson, All-Star” could probably supply a pretzel factory for a year. Which he undoubtedly enjoys.
Loser: The old standbys
This All-Star Game will be the first one since 2007 not to have either Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane participating. Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, Anze Kopitar … they’ve also yielded to the next wave. Meanwhile, there are 21 first-timers at the All-Star Game. Familiarity’s loss is enthusiasm’s gain.
Winner: Arizona Coyotes
From a sports wagering perspective, the Coyotes’ shootout win over the Colorado Avalanche — breaking the Avs’ 18-game home winning streak — was the biggest NHL upset in at least the past 10 years.
Loser: Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes’ move to ASU next season has been met with … some skepticism. “They’ve botched the situation with Glendale,” one team executive said in a report by The Athletic. “What’s to say anyone believes they’ll actually get something done in three or four years?” For the record: I think the Coyotes playing in front of 4,500-5,000 loud, rabid fans would make for a really cool and different environment for an NHL team that could use a vibe infusion. But not for four years.
Winner: Quinton Byfield
My favorite story of the week. Los Angeles Kings rookie Quinton Byfield met 8-year-old Quinton Byfield, who shares his name and his hometown of Newmarket, Ontario. “Big QB” surprised “Little QB” and his family with a trip to Los Angeles and tickets to a Kings home game.
Hockey is for everyone, including the convoy. “We know that hockey is a historically white dominated sport. Yet, when we venture into the closeness of white supremacy and hockey, people tend to get a lot more defensive.”
Former Quinnipiac enforcer Neil Breen believes his career is a cautionary tale. “I’m fresh off of being a coach in junior hockey and the idea of contact and taking that out of the sport, you get laughed at for doing that. And now I wish I never played hockey.”
Here are six NHL trade deadline candidates that probably won’t get traded. On Jakob Chychrun: “The Coyotes reportedly seek at least a good young NHL player, a first-round pick and a top prospect. He’s more likely to be moved in the offseason when teams have more willingness to make big moves.”
Good piece on Hilary Knight. Kendall Coyne Schofield on her teammate: “When you look at Hilary Knight’s career, I look at a generational player that has missed out on the opportunity to earn her worth because that is not provided in the professional landscape. You look at the type of caliber player she is and put her in the men’s game, I mean, she’s making millions of dollars.”
Highly recommend The Ice Garden’s women’s Olympic hockey tournament preview. “The Lamoureux twins were agitators and also in the middle of the inevitable scrums that happened. Duggan was a true leader on and off the ice. Bellamy was a stalwart on defense. All had been on the roster since the 2010 Olympics. Replacing … all of that is tall task to undertake, one that Canada — their main rival — didn’t have to undergo.
Jaromir Jagr‘s spot on TNT was really Jagr-iffic, including his apology to Capitals fans. “I wanted to be the best and it just didn’t work out. Right now I still can’t apologize to the fans in Washington enough. I try my best but it just didn’t work out. When I got traded to New York, I switch everything again and I still love the hockey again.”
From your friends at ESPN
The Drop, my show with Arda Ocal, returned this week with some insight, analysis and hockey-related giggles. Watch it here: