Since inception in 1947, the NHL All Star Game has seen a multitude of evolutions, each trying to freshen up and retain relevancy for an exhibition game featuring the league's best players.
The latest change to the game format was broken by TSN on their Insider Trading segment that confirmed Darren Dreger's earlier reports with the likely new format presented by Bob McKenzie, and a potential later alteration provided by Pierre LeBrun. The nuts and bolts:
- The Fantasy Draft format is no more
- Instead of two teams, the four divisions will have squads of 9-10 skaters plus goalies that will compete in three-on-three mini games
- There will be three 20 minute mini games, with the Pacific facing the Central, and Metropolitan facing Atlantic. The winner of each 20 minute game will advance to compete in the 20 minute final
- Expected to have a large cash incentive for the 10-12 players on the division that wins the 3-on-3 tournament
- In 2018 or 2019 the league may scrap the All Star weekend entirely for a Ryder Cup style event in London, England
- No specifics on what exactly that would entail, but likely a North America vs Europe format
The idea that the league may be turfing the game in general within the next three years seems an interesting admission that the event, which already struggles for relevance in the American national sports scene, holds little to no cachet within the base of hockey fans as well.
As for the new format, it fits the pattern of the league capitalizing on something attention-getting and trying to make it big as possible. Remember that the shootout first showed up in an All Star game as a means to decide the 2008 game in Atlanta, so it only makes sense that the NHL would showcase the new exciting three-on-three overtime setup by going over the top with it.
History Of Gimmickry
Folks can wring their hands at the league's decision or embrace it whole-heartedly, but it's important to remember that the All Star game has always been an exhibition, and especially since the original NHL expansion for the 1967-68 season the game has been continuously tinkered with.
- From the first All Star game in 1947 through 1968 the game featured the defending Stanley Cup champions taking on a team of All Stars from the remaining teams based on performance during the previous season. The game was played before the season for the first 19 times until it took a hiatus in '66 so it could be played during the middle of the season. That opened up the possibility in '67 for All Stars to be chosen based upon performance during the current season.
- From 1969-1974 it was competed East vs West, before shifting to Campbell vs Wales from 1975-1993. There were six seasons from 75-80 where teams weren't split geographically under the Campbell/Wales conference format, but that reverted back to East (Wales) / Campbell (West) in '81.
- Twice during the Campbell vs Wales era the game was cancelled in favor of an international series. First in 1979 the Challenge Cup was competed between the NHL All Stars and the Soviet Union national team in a three game series. Then in 1987 Rendez-vous '87 was competed between the NHL All Stars and the Soviet Union national team in a two game series, done to avoid the possibility of embarrassment for the league if they lost like in '79.
- Fan balloting for the game wasn't introduced until the 1986 season. The skills competition didn't become part of All Star weekend until 1990.
- There was a brief three game stretch from 1994-1997 where the game reverted to East vs West format with the reinstitution of geographic-based conference and division names under new commissioner Gary Bettman.
- With the NHL partaking in the Olympics beginning with the 1998 Nagano games, the league adopted a North America vs The World format from 1998-2002.
- The league returned to the East vs West format from 2003-2010
- Seizing on the popularity of fantasy sports, the format switched to a Fantasy Draft from 2011-2015. Team captains selected their rosters from a pool of All Stars in a made-for-television event the night before All Star weekend.
- The NHL has cancelled the All Star game five times in the Bettman era. In 1995, 2005, and 2013 it was cancelled due to the league being locked out due to management dispute with the players over the collective bargaining agreement. In 2006 and 2014 it was cancelled due to the NHL's involvement in the Olympics
While in the past quarter century the All Star game has devolved into a high scoring, no defense, pond hockey affair not in line with how the game is regularly competed, it's important to remember that the game has always been an exhibition. Sure, under the commissionership of Bettman there's been a more regular swipe at keeping the game relevant through format changes. But how much of that is due to trying to keep a concept which has grow increasingly stale over the decades thanks to lack of interest in serious competition by the players involved, and in the respective franchises seeing their players seriously compete?
With the All Star game still planned as part of the NHL schedule until at least 2018, the choice is simple. If fans of the sport want to watch any hockey that weekend, it's going to be a gimmicked presentation of the game. Either accept the gimmick for what it is, and try to enjoy it, or don't watch it. Sure you can snark about it on the internet, but even that gets old at a point.
Hopefully this much three-on-three doesn't leave viewers with the feeling that they've eaten a whole carton of ice cream. After all, dessert is nice to have after a hearty meal. But then again, All Star weekend has always been empty calorie hockey.