By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
I believe the old saying is “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
Well, the NHL’s annual All-Star break just took place in Las Vegas and things seemingly went off without a hitch. We even got “The Quote of The Year” from Golden Knights’ Head Coach Pete DeBoer, “I’ll be honest with you, I’m a little hungover today.”
A hangover in Las Vegas? Sounds par for the course. So, if everything went according to plan, then why are we here?
To be completely honest, for as much fun as the All-Star weekend was, there are a couple of things that should indeed stay in Vegas and not pop up next year in Florida.
First, it’s time to do away with the three-on-three mini-tournament All-Star Game format. It was a fun concept when it was first introduced a handful of years ago. But now the novelty has worn thin. Three-on-three overtime in the regular-season works because there are high stakes in the form of two points for the winning team. Plus, it’s only for five-minutes and there’s a certain level of intensity that just isn’t present in the so-called “Best vs Best” All-Star festivities.
Nobody is suggesting we go back to the old format of East vs West for a full length game. That too lost its appeal years ago. The main problem with the All-Star game itself is that regardless of the rules or format, it doesn’t mean much. It’s an exhibition for the fans to enjoy.
However, the fans and the players all grumbled about how many of the game’s biggest stars were missing. Some, like Alex Ovechkin (COVID) and Mika Zibanejad (personal matters) had legitimate excuses. Several years ago the league implemented a rule about a player being suspended one-game if they were selected and voluntarily chose not to appear. That hasn’t worked.
The three-on-three divisional team format utilizes smaller rosters than one would normally see in a hockey game, so fewer players are selected. Plus, because each team must – by rule – be represented by at least one player, that means many of the game’s biggest stars are left out. All that has led to fans losing interest.
Is there a solution? While it’s near impossible to please everybody, there has to be something that will rejuvenate the All-Star break’s main event. The NHL can’t afford for fans to tune out during such an important weekend. It’s nationally broadcast after all and a chance to draw more eyeballs to the product.
I’m just spitballing here, but what if the All-Star game carried stakes other than a monetary award for the winners? What if, again I’m just thinking out loud, the league did an All-Star draft?
Let two players be voted by the fans as Team Captains. Let those two players draft their respective teams from a select pool of players determined by the fans, media, players and the league. Then, let the two teams play a full 60-minute game with all the normal rules of a hockey game. Whichever team wins, that Captain automatically returns as one of the Captains the following year AND has the first pick in the All-Star draft.
It’s not perfect, but at least it gives the game tangible stakes the players will care about. The intensity of the game will hopefully be improved and the on-ice product will be better; with more interest from fans too.
Getting back to what else should stay in Vegas…
The Skills Competition is fun and the league’s presentation of it is highly enjoyable. However, having some events be pre-recorded takes the steam out of things a bit. I get why the league had to do this for the Bellagio Fountain and NHL 21 in 22 events, but that doesn’t mean the league should be okay with doing that in the future. Keep the Skills Competition live and in-person; fans don’t pay astronomical prices to watch the jumbotron. They can do that at home for free.
Something else that needs to change is the way the NHL handles its outdoor games.
The Winter Classic is a tremendous event. It’s aim to bring hockey back to its roots is fantastic and the league does a terrific job with the presentation. But there’s no reason for venues and teams to be getting repeated. Not yet.
The 2023 Winter Classic is being held at Fenway Park and the Bruins will be one of the two teams playing in the game. Fenway was the home of the 2010 Winter Classic between the Bruins and Flyers. The Bruins have played in three of the 13 Winter Classics. The Blackhawks have been in four. You get the point.
What the NHL did in 2021 at Lake Tahoe was excellent. It was unique and got fans buzzing. In baseball, MLB re-created the Field of Dreams field from the movie and played a game there. That was cool. The NHL should build a rink in a scenic/historical area and play the Winter Classic there each year. At least then it’ll be different from the baseball and football stadiums that start to look alike after a while.
The NHL should take it one step further. To ensure every team gets a chance to participate in the Winter Classic, let the league award one spot in the game to the reigning Stanley Cup champ and the other spot will be chosen via lottery. And to make sure the lottery balls don’t favor any one team, no team should be allowed to win the lottery more than once in a seven-year span.
Under this proposal you’re basically assured of two things. First, you’ll have at least one very good team in the game. Second, thanks to the league’s parity, you should have fresh matchups that will keep the game interesting.
This idea isn’t without flaws. But it’s a start. Now let’s leave the old system in Vegas and work to bring a newer, better one into existence.