Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dear Terry Frei, I Disagree

I was all set to watch the NHL All-Star game this weekend in the stunning clarity of high definition, but I live in Saint Louis. Instead of going into detail, I will point all interested parties to poster rmj1080p, who sums up everything exactly with post #664 (reply to #661) on AVS Forums.

So I went out scouting for am All-Star column and Terry Frei helped me out. Thanks Terry - I owe you one.

It's funny sometimes, the things you remember.

That's true. I once had a game involving a high school text book and the questionable sexual preferences of the females inside its pages. The turn of the century must have been a bad time to be a guy.

Waiting outside the dressing rooms after the 1998 All-Star Game in Vancouver, a group of us interviewed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. The '98 contest was the first time the league -- as a tie-in to its players' participation in the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Japan -- tried the World vs. North America format.

Bettman was more defensive than any of the defensemen in the game. (That wasn't saying much, of course.) He said everyone enjoyed watching North America's 8-7 win, and no matter what format the league used, we'd probably try to find something wrong with it.

At the time, that was true.

I remember watching it for the first time and thinking about how dumb it was. Players from the same team on opposite all star teams? As if hockey wasn't already confusing enough for people that didn't watch it, now the players that they might know about are playing against each other. It's a good thing that ended. But I'm agreeing with Mr. Frei so far and that's not what I'm all about.

At some point in the past 10 years, though, it seems the consensus has become that there's no use grousing about it, because the All-Star Game is a no-contact, no-emotion gimmick -- and it ain't ever going to change.

So because everyone knows what it is, isn't it wasting breath to knock it?

I'd say it is. Of course, that didn't really stop you from knocking it in the previous paragraph.

In a league that (again) is meekly accepting coaching strategies that strangle the entertainment value out of the regular season, most seem to have accepted the All-Star Game's role as a reminder that unfettered skills in a noncompetitive environment is largely boring.

The regular season isn't entertaining because it's too long and getting longer. Too many teams get into the playoffs. Expansion diluted the talent pool. But coaching strategies? He has a point with the neutral zone trap, but there aren't a lot of coaching strategies that reduce entertainment value. Home team wins = entertainment. Add alcohol and puck bunnies into the equation, and you get your $100 worth. Supposedly.

If the television ratings are awful Sunday night, the response should be: Good.

It will. It's Versus. And because Nielsen families aren't watching, the sport is doomed! DOOMED!

Clearly, it's about the culture of the game; there was no more theoretical incentive for the All-Star teams of 30 years ago -- when Gilbert Perreault's overtime goal gave the Wales Conference a 3-2 victory over the Campbell Conference in, appropriately enough, Buffalo.

And maybe there's no way to change it. Perhaps, regardless of the way the rosters are structured, the laissez-faire attitude would dominate.

Perhaps Bettman should suspend the writ of habeas corpus, giving teams a two man advantage for all games. (Thanks, Mr. Buffo!)

But shouldn't the league at least try? I'm not saying any of these suggestions would work, or even that they're all completely serious. The NHL Players' Association would frown upon some of these. But shouldn't the point be that mere acceptance of what the All-Star Game and All-Star weekend are doesn't have to be automatic?

How about one of the proposals below, or a combination thereof:

So just to make sure I have this right - Here's a list. Some of it is really bad, but instead of polish up the good ideas, I'll list them all. Here we go!

Give the winning conference home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup finals.

STOP. RIGHT. THERE. No. Of all the ideas, I can see this one happening and it frightens me. Instead of giving the better team home ice advantage, let's give it to the winner of an exhibition game. Never in a million years should this happen. It took the seriousness of baseball down a notch, so why not poison hockey, too?

His first point, continued:

At best, it would add a tiny emotional edge, even if it's only from the coach behind the bench. A completely contrived way to decide the home ice? So? Even after its disgustingly minor tweak of the scheduling format for next season, the NHL will still have too few interconference games. Therefore using overall records to award home-ice advantage is nearly just as contrived.

Last I had read, next year's schedule might be 84 games long instead of 82, and could have every team play at every arena during the year. It probably won't happen, but stranger things have happened. Like making an all star game count for something.

Revert to the pre-expansion tradition of having the defending Stanley Cup champion play the All-Stars. The champs against the league, whether at a preordained site or the champs' own building. Include a financial mechanism to reward an entire roster for not getting a break, and hope that the champs play with cohesion and spirit out of pride and habit -- and that the All-Stars are coaxed into at least playing with some emotion.

With the way the free agent market is today compared to the "pre-expansion" days, I can't see this idea making the game anything but less interesting than it already is. This is also where the NHLPA would throw a fit. But it isn't a horrible idea.

Don't go back to the North America vs. World format. Instead, make it Canada against the World.

Isn't the rest of the world making fun of Canada anyways? How about a Red Wings vs. the World if we're throwing out dumb gimmick ideas. Or make like the new Survivor: NHL Superfans vs. NHL Superstars. If this happens, remember you read it here first.

Do it by age group. The league tries this in a very minor way with the YoungStars Game, but that's such a low-profile and more contrived "game" than the All-Star Game; and with many of the best "young stars" in the All-Star Game itself, it serves little useful purpose. It does not do what the league often seems so reluctant to do: truly celebrate the star power of the young players who will be in the spotlight for the next decade, or longer. Make it Vets vs. Kids. Upperclassmen vs. Underclassmen. Seniors vs. Sophomores. Whatever you want to call it, even if that means selling the team names to league sponsors for contributions to charity.

A lot of minor leagues already sell their all star team names to corporate sponsors. They just leave out the charity part.

At this point, 17 of the 42 players on this season's All-Star rosters are 30 or older. I'd draw the division artificially low, making it 26 and under, meaning Rick DiPietro would be on the Kids team and Vincent Lecavalier would be on the Vets. Showcase the young talent. Showcase the league's future. And hope this raises the level of competitiveness.

And what is the positive to sticking all the older guys on the same team exactly? Showcase the old talent and the league's past? A good hack to the ribs of some kid who dribbles the puck in the air? All in all, not a bad idea.

Make the weekend even more of a hockey jamboree, regardless of where the game is played. Have the defending Memorial Cup champions play a league game -- one that counts in the standings -- in the All-Star arena Sunday morning, or match the teams with the best records in the Quebec, Ontario and Western Leagues (two of the three on a rotating basis) on a cutoff date in a major junior showcase. Because of NCAA fussiness, having similar U.S. college and National Team Development Program participation probably would be impossible, but what the heck, see if there's a way to make it work.

Canada would love this idea. America would continue not to care.

Try the whole thing outdoors. Maybe not every year, but occasionally.

The NHL could turn the outdoor game into Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on ABC. Take a winning formula, then force it on everyone until it's unpopular, then never speak of it again.

Gulp. Rotate the All-Star site among Toronto, Montreal, New York, Detroit, Boston and Chicago. The Original Six. Yes, fans in the latter two cities have lost much of their passion for the NHL, but this would be more a nod to tradition than a salute of the state of the game in those cities.

Reward two cities that don't care about the sport anymore! Best idea ever!

I have one idea of my own: How about instead of naming a host city, the team of the player that scores the game winning goal gets the game the next year? Who's with me?

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