NHL needs to loosen its grip for All-Star Game to be relevant again

·5-min read

If there has been any benefit to the league's schedule being thrown off cadence these last two years, it's that we haven't had to lament the NHL All-Star Game in quite some time.

What was once an exciting weekend for fans, sponsors, broadcast partners, and previously-gung-ho participants has devolved over the decades into something that just cannot manage to be meaningful beyond the market in which its staged.

There is no shortage of reasons why the NHL All-Star weekend isn't what it once was, including something just as basic — or vague — as the way in which the wind now blows. Because this is not just an NHL problem, but an issue that exists across all sports that carve out a weekend to showcase talent in some shape or form. There is just something about the way we, and more specifically professional athletes, live our lives that has created a disconnect with these events.

But one overriding explanation stands out for me when contemplating why the NHL's version is failing: Being an All-Star is a distinction that has been devalued to an extreme degree.

I'm not sure when the ball starting rolling on this, but it seems now everyone involved is doing their part to see to it that it means less. At the planning and execution level, the events, and the game itself, have simply become stale. At the player level, one of the most marketable talents in league history, Alexander Ovechkin, has routinely skipped the event (though he's chosen to attend this season, apparently), as part of a larger collection of top-end talents influencing the idea that the event is now lesser than through their willingness to skip.

Even the fans and media have contributed, using their voices and votes to include players who simply don't belong. Sure, John Scott's inclusion led to one of the best All-Star moments in recent memory, but it's hard to argue that his MVP performance didn't help to de-legitimize the event.

The most powerful factor, however, is the league's refusal to simply pick the talent worthy of the distinction in its efforts to include all 32 franchises. In its latest event and team-selection strategy, the league office has boxed itself in to the nth degree, implementing the most inflexible guidelines imaginable when choosing who is and who isn't an All-Star.

With four 11-man rosters including two fan-voted selections, the league office has nine spots to fill while making sure all eight teams in each division are represented. That means at best 12 teams can have more than one selection, invariably leading to an assembly of deserving candidates left off the rosters.

This season, the absentees (prior to the final fan-awarded roster spot) include four of the top 10 scorers in the NHL, Nazem Kadri, Steven Stamkos, Mikko Rantanen and Brad Marchand, as well as maybe the Vezina Trophy front runner, Igor Shesterkin, among so many other deserving options.

These selections, and these teams, are a farce; players, fans and sponsors understand that. So how could anyone argue that it means less, now, to be an All-Star?

The NHL has boxed itself in to the nth degree, implementing the most inflexible guidelines imaginable when choosing who is and who isn't an All-Star.
The NHL has boxed itself in to the nth degree, implementing the most inflexible guidelines imaginable when choosing who is and who isn't an All-Star. (Getty)

While there is no single fix-all solution, there are pretty simple steps to improving certain things. Deciding that not every team has to be represented is a start, though it's unlikely the NHL will ever make that concession — even after the industry-leading NBA has taken that stance. Removing the division-to-division parameters would help blur the lines as well, likely leading to a few more deserving candidates.

But how about this idea? Like many NHL players have and done previously, why doesn't the league office recuse itself from the selection process altogether? Why not cede control and have the two broadcasting partners on respective sides of the border, huddle up in a room and decide which 44 players they want to try to market across a 48-hour stretch in early February?

Do you think Sportsnet in Canada and, in this case, ESPN in the United States, would choose John Gibson over camera-hungry Calder Trophy candidate and creator of the "Dishigan," Trevor Zegras? Or Drake Batherson over Brady Tkachuk? Or stay-at-home defender Adam Pelech over Mat Barzal, despite his struggles this season?

To steal a phrase from Nathan MacKinnon, who was understandably upset that his Avalanche aren't represented in the fashion they should be, the NHL Participation Game has nothing on the NHL All-Marketable Game.

Let's trust those in charge of marketing the sport to mass audiences decide which players would translate best.

In fact, I'll take it a step further. Let the networks decide the event schedule. Let them decide if positions matter. Let them work with their selections on how best to use them throughout the weekend. Let them draft the teams. Have them throw sticks at centre ice to shake things up. Let them divide by nations. Let them serve beer before a live draft.

These networks are in the business of creating and executing on ideas. Their billions are built on innovation. They specialize in special events.

So maybe have them both deal and play the hand?

This is an event the NHL has clearly choked the life out of. And we won't see an improvement until it loosens its grip.

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