Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A modest proposal: future All-Star Games

The complaints have piled up against the All-Star Game: it's irrelevant; it has no standing or meaning in the course of the season; and occasionally, fans have voted players to the starting roster who really shouldn't be playing in an All-Star Game. (Or, as happened this year, the fans voted no less than 4 players from a single team to the 6 guaranteed starter spot, which means 10% of the All-Star players will come from a single team.)

There are a few ways to help add relevancy to the game, or at least have it be a reward for the current season of play. First, let's review formats seen in the NHL's All-Star history:

- The original format was to have the previous season's Stanley Cup champions vs a team comprised of All-Stars (1947-1968).
- The exception to this was 1951 & 1952, where the First All-Star team players came from the American clubs, and the Second All-Star team came from the Canadian ones.
- From 1969-1997 and 2003-2009, it has been played Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference.
- From 1998-2002, teams were divided by the players' nationality - North America (US/Canada) vs the World.

Between the Olympics and the World Championships/World Junior Championships, there is no need to return to a division by nationality, but by returning to Eastern vs. Western, and incorporating elements from the game's origins, there could be a much more interesting way to select who gets to play.

We'll stick with the idea of 42 players making each year's game (current size), and return to the Eastern vs Western Conference format. Although ideally, the roster would expand to 25. Hey, if the game "doesn't count", what difference is there if there's extra players on the bench?

First, let's discuss the "byes": the Captains of the two teams. The first Captain should be the Captain of whatever team is hosting that year's All-Star Game. This creates immediate extra  interest in the home market because one of their players is Captain. The other Captain should be the Captain of whatever team is the current defending Stanley Cup champions. These players, no matter what teams they came from, would stand outside the voting to be outlined below. Ideally, these players hopefully come from different conferences, but if they don't, the home team would take whatever conference the game is being played in, and the SC Captain would take the other. If the defending SC team and the host team were one and the same, then the Captain of the team who is leading the conferences standings of the conference opposite of the host, as of the morning of New Year's Day, would be selected. 

The other "byes" would be the head coaches: One would be the host team's coach; the other would be the previous season's winner of the Jack Adams Award (awarded to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success). If by some chance these are the same person, then the second coach would be the coach for the current Stanley Cup defenders. If by some crazy fluke that's still the same guy, then the second head coach would be the coach whose team is atop the standings of the conference opposite his own as of January 1st. The assistant coaches would be the head coach from the team in each conference who is at the top of the standings as of January 1st. (If head coaches are already those coaches, then those coaches who are second in the standings.)

Choosing a Captain - and potentially a coach as well - from the current Stanley Cup defenders would, of course, draw the attention of that team's fanbase, not to mention the raw marketing value.

This would leave 40 players still to be determined.

The fact of the matter is that the game is called the "All-Star Game". With 30 teams in the league and more than 30 slots available, it is only logical, right, and most of all fair to ensure that EVERY team in the league has at least one starter. Having at least one player from every team will also mean that every team's fandom will have an interest in tuning in. As stated above, the teams whose players are Captains will have no bearing on the next 30 players selected; it is a bonus of the host team and the Stanley Cup champions to have those extra players represented at the game.

However, to keep it interesting, elements of the current idea of the "Ultimate fantasy draft" would be incorporated, with the team captain and coach choosing the first 15 slots on each team based on a pool presented via fan votes. Each of the two teams would be required to choose one representative from every team in their conference.

The players to fill those 30 player slots would consist of two players from each team, selected by a combination of votes from that team's fanbase: one forward and one defenseman. In this way, fans can choose to stuff their own ballot box in favor of a particular player, but this will eliminate grassroots efforts by the larger/hardcore fanbases to fill the single opening 6 or 12 slots with as many of their team as possible. 

If you want to see team X play, you should buy a ticket for the team's games; the point of the ASG is to showcase as many talents as possible across the league. By ensuring every team has invested effort in choosing a particular set of players, it should also eliminate joke voting, and the league office would have the right and duty to review final choices. Those players not selected to the final All-Star teams would have the honor of being the Second All-Star (alternative players) team.

Next, six of the remaining slots would be filled by members of the rookie class for the year; these players would be selected by the NHL.

Once the teams were sorted out, the roster of each team plus their head coach would vote for two goalies among their conference's starting goalie rosters, and pick one main goalie and one backup goalies - thus rounding out the final four spots.

The All-Star weekend would include the usual things - the NHL Fan Fair, the skills competitions, etc., although perhaps offering more opportunities to meet with the First and Second team players, and have some ways to upsell tickets via special opportunities, such as hockey clinics with current or alumni players and so forth.

Finally, if the NHL really wanted to generate some interest from the All-Star Game, whichever team - and thus conference - won the game, would be rewarded with home-ice advantage in that year's Stanley Cup Final. 

* * *

One alternative idea for the All-Star Game: make there be two All-Star Games and turn it into an All-Star Weekend. Have one game be determined entirely by fan votes - again, East vs West, with top 14 forwards, top 7 defensemen and top 2 goalies for each conference. (Or top 16 forwards, top 9 defensemen, and top 3 goalies). Have the second game be determined by an NHLPA/NHL player vote.

That way, there would be two games played, each carrying distinct honors: one would be a fan popularity game; the other would be determined by the respect of their peers. While some players would overlap, there is no doubt that the teams would be different enough to provide two different experiences.

And ultimately, of course, sell more tickets.

* * *

On a side note, I like the idea of the ASG being played on an outdoor rink like the Winter Classic is. Since the game is held in January, that's frequently the coldest stretch of the year and less likely to result in weather issues like this year's Winter Classic did. However, alternatively, other indoor venues (football or baseball arenas) played under a dome would also be ideal to allow for increased seating capacity. 

The ASG, whether or not it is considered "relevant", always sells out - and who buys those seats? It is the home team season ticket holders and sponsors. In fact, it is generally near-impossible to get tickets to the ASG if you don't fall into one of those two categories.  Why wouldn't the NHL seek to play the ASG in a larger venue? More league revenue is good, right? So perhaps that is also another consideration that the league might want to consider as they move forward as well.

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