Part 2 of our continuing series; An Australian on Ice Hockey
Part 1: You make excuses for the Habs
Part 3: Chara's Pacioretty hit means a lot for NHL - and pro sport
Part 5: The Psychology of Choking
The NHL All-Star Game is scheduled for Sunday 29th of January in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has changed format this year. Rather than the traditional fan-selected East vs. West match typifying All-Star games across the major sports, this year the league asked fans to select six players only. Those players, four from Pittsburgh and two Chicago Blackhawks, will be joined by players that the NHL's Hockey Operations department has selected to bring the number of players up to the Adamsian forty-two.
Here's where it gets interesting. Two captains will be selected from that shortlist of forty-two and each captain will then choose his own squad as if they are playing hockey out back on the pond. Rumour has it the NHL's most marketable players - forwards Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin from the Penguins and Capitals - are likely to be given the honour of selecting their own teammates.
Click here to see the full roster as selected by the fans and NHL.
While Gary Bettman has had a controversial and chequered career as the NHL's commissioner, this is a win. The NHL is a clear and distant fourth in America's sporting hierarchy and this change of direction for the league showpiece, while revolutionary, allows its millions of followers not just to see the best hockey has to offer, but also makes the game more approachable for the everyman. Every single hockey player in Canada has played pond hockey - perhaps even every single person. Pickup hockey is one of the nation's great pastimes and for a league facing as many struggles as the NHL does - chiefly issues of legitimacy outside Canada and the North East US - it stands to gain both notoriety and new fans by adopting such a novel approach. While playing in the NHL - or any pro sport - is out of reach for most of us, this concept of bringing the apogee of the game back to the grass roots allows Joe Public to identify more with the creme de la creme of Ice Hockey.
It's concepts like this match and the Winter Classic, where a match is played outside during the depths of winter - this year Crosby's Pens hosting Ovechkin's Caps at Pittsburgh Football stadium - which could bring a whole new relevancy to the national game of Canada. Hockey is facing a tough battle to remain in the US national consciousness as expansion waters down the talent pool and US cities find themselves unprepared for athletes speaking little English. (A quarter of the NHL's player pool comes from outside North America and many newcomers don't have a great command of the language). Soccer and Mixed Martial Arts (!) are rapidly gaining ground in the chase for the NHL's title of "fourth most identifiable sport in the continent" so it's encouraging from a position north of the border to see measures being taken to support the visibility of the league in the southern United States, no matter how few people play - or even care about- hockey there. Bettman's infinitely debatable strategy of relocating small-market Canadian teams and expanding south of the border - sometimes waaaaaay south - was aimed at growing the game in warmer climes and has achieved only mild-to-moderate success. To encourage that growth, there has to be exposure as to why and how the game is so loved in northern regions.
Where perhaps the NHL has dropped the ball - sorry, puck - with this new All-Star concept is the logical extension of this "pond hockey" idea: while the captains are obviously important, maybe there's too much emphasis placed on the skipper's role. To really capture the spirit of pond hockey, the essence of the grass-roots, perhaps it'd be preferable to suit the players up on All-Star Saturday and get them to throw their sticks in a pile to be picked at random onto one of two teams just like when playing pickup. It could be done according to position as well to ensure parity and so rather than relying on a captain's personal preference, another level of mystery to the game is added - no matter how they feel about each other, how would Malkin play with Ovechkin? Or Carey Price with Zdeno Chara?
Television cameras north and south of the 49th would love to see Bettman out on the ice, picking up a stick and throwing it into one team or the other's pile at random. It would just be magic publicity for the league - a draft of the best 42 players in the world and an All-Star game in the one weekend. I can't imagine this being anything other than a major boost for the event, and for the league as a whole. Perhaps that's the future direction of the All-Star game.
Perhaps the next generation All-Star game could follow the same lines that Australia has used recently for the AFL's one-off revival of it's State of Origin concept. In that 2008 match, the state with the largest number of clubs - and thus grass-roots players - competed against a team made up of players who played junior footy outside Victoria. The same could be done with the NHL, with a US/Canada combination being pitted against an International All-Star squad coming from Finland, Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic. To make the numbers even more square, it could be players who played their juniors in Canada (Out of the 962 NHL players in 2009-10, 520 were Canadians) against The Rest. I'd pay money to see either match and, along with the Pond Hockey idea, it's perhaps more sustainable and easily regulated than two captains picking their own teams, probably rife with friends and brown-noses. This option may be unlikely as it divides players along national lines and could tread on the toes of the IIHF, but is at least worth considering.
There are a few other wrinkles to this game make it even more interesting. Identical twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, of the league-topping Vancouver Canucks, have never played against each other during their NHL careers and could wind up on different teams. Brothers Marc and Eric Staal may find themselves playing alongside or against one another. In a game where knowledge of one's comrades is vital to good team play, it would be great to see Crosby not selecting m/any of his Pens/Team Canada alumni so as to increase the levels of uncertainty and make the event even more of a spectacle: let the public see how he would go against Marc-Andre Fleury. It's crucial the teams are really shaken up and the NHL should encourage the star-cross'd captains just to have fun and pick guys they'd like to play with, rather than know intimately. As usual there are questionable selections and "milk cartons" - players missing from the game for unknown reasons - which adds another level of intrigue to what is already shaping as one of the most interesting hockey games of the year.