Thursday, January 26, 2012

NHL All-Star Game: Like you in the school yard, but cooler.

Depending on your perspective when it comes to these things -- that is to say the "right" perspective or the "wrong" one -- the best part of each sport's annual midseason break is almost certainly never the All-Star Game itself. When it comes to that yearly talent showcase, each of the four major sports is prone to injury replacements, popularity contests and local host ballot stuffing that denigrate the game at its finest. And did I mention that they don't exactly play defense at these things?

As a result, the best event of the weekend gets trumped by what's around it. The MLB All-Star Game is never as fun to watch as the previous night's Home Run Derby. The NBA All-Star Game can't possibly match up to the Slam Dunk Contest. The NFL Pro Bowl is always completely inferior to, well, anything else that's on TV that night.

When it comes to my favorite All-Star weekend of the four major sports -- the NHL -- the game itself, while periodically entertaining, is nearly devoid of physical play and often results in goofy scores like 12-9. The Skills Competition on Saturday night, however, is almost always a safe bet for some impressive moments (let's see you fire a hockey puck 105.9 miles per hour), or at least some highly goofy and entertaining ones. But of all the events and innovations that the NHL has introduced to its All-Star format -- and there have been many -- the clear-cut greatest thing the League has done -- and arguably the greatest aspect of any sport's All-Star format, will be on display tonight in Ottawa.

Tonight at 8 p.m. ET, the NHL will put on its second annual NHL All-Star Fantasy Player Draft. The NHL has come up with several different All-Star formats to attempt to drive up interest, be it the obvious of Eastern Conference All-Stars against West, the more inventive version of the defending champion against the rest of the League or the North American players against the rest of the World. But as Leagues always scramble for ways to breathe fresh life into a stale product, they have come up with plenty of incredibly stupid ideas, but the NHL has come up with a phenomenal one.

All of us played sports as children, all of us have experienced the long-entrenched process of two captains alternating picks for their teams and all of us have known how awful it feels to be picked last. Or perhaps that final one was just me. But seeing it done with athletes this superior is a fresh and exciting change to an All-Star Game -- and it makes for phenomenal television. At the NHL's first Fantasy Player Draft a year ago, the very real drama that unfolded as captains Nicklas Lidstrom and Eric Staal selected their teams was fascinating to watch.

What is equally as fascinating are the numerous debates that ensue, whether or not the captains should pick teams for the purpose of winning the game or skills competition, or whether they should be wary of miffing their own teammates and maintaining peace in the locker room after the weekend because feelings might be hurt. The latter was certainly the strategy taken by Staal last year when he selected his goalie Cam Ward with the first selection, a somewhat onerous strategy considering goalies are largely useless in the All-Star Game. In the case of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, who was sitting all by himself in the galley as the last pick of the 2011 Draft, the implied insult isn't terribly awful -- at worst he is the 50th or so best hockey player on the entire planet -- but the perceived slight may have had a very real impact on Kessel's game, as the one-time one-dimensional scorer has blossomed this season into phenomenal two-way player. His plus-1 rating is far better than his career minus-22 mark and his 26 goals and 25 assists in 49 games this year put him on pace to absolutely shatter his career highs and have him eighth in the League in scoring.

In addition to the on-ice impact, last season there was the potential for plenty of family strife as well. Vancouver Canucks offensive dynamos Daniel and Henrik Sedin, a pair of Swedish twins who have claimed the last two scoring titles and are each in the top ten this year, were drafted to separate teams, which represented the first time the pair had ever played against each other in their lives in an organized game. More pronounced, however, was the fact that Staal picked several players while his younger brother Marc waited impatiently to hear his name called. Despite the "classless" move, all concerns about awkwardness stemming from that night for the next Staal family Thanksgiving (sidenote, that happens in October in their hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario) was alleviated when Eric finally named his brother. Instead, the Thanksgiving awkwardness came a month later when Eric delivered a crushing hit to Marc, leaving him with a concussion that kept him out of the game until the Winter Classic earlier this month.

Now as you watch all of these clips, perhaps what you're noticing, aside from how awesome the idea is of seeing these people hash out personal rivalries as they pick their teams on TV, is that hockey players, by and large, are all nice, good-humored, affable men. And while that is a lovely example to set for our children, it also makes the subtle, understated nature of your average Canadian athlete, well, kind of boring. That doesn't mean the event is boring to watch. It most certainly isn't, but just imagine the entertaining and ridiculous histrionics we could see if this idea was adopted by a League with more interesting people like, say, the NBA. Can you imagine what it would be like to watch Ron Artest (who is completely insane) draft an All-Star team of NBA players? Or be left until the last pick? How incredibly entertaining could that be?

The NHL has created a must see TV concept that gives an exceptional amount of juice to All-Star weekend by putting the relationships players have in the forefront in a way that is eminently relatable to its fans. It is in no uncertain terms a fantastic concept, which is one of the highlights of the NHL season.

Few events compare to this one. The NHL's brethren would be wise to follow its lead.

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