In its previous 60 incarnations, the NHL All-Star Game has been renamed and rebranded numerous times, and undergone countless changes to its format, marketing & promotion, rules, and structure. This year, we are now going to see yet another update to the league’s showcase of star players.
For the first time in history, teams will be reduced to less than five skaters on the ice at a time. For the first time in history, the "game" will actually be three games. And another first, those games will only last twenty minutes.
Needless to say, these are radical updates to a not-so-traditional tradition. Yes, the All-Star Game has been annual—barring lockouts and a couple Olympic breaks. But it’s changed so often that it’s become hard to be attached to any one format.
The luster and reasoning behind such a game has also lost a little value. In the days of inception, the All-Star Game provided a look at the league’s best stars, because you often couldn’t see them on a nightly basis. There was no GameCenter Live, no NHL Network, no Streamable or YouTube or HockeyStreams. You’d hear that Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr and Mario Lemeiux were some of the greatest skaters to every lace up. But could you watch them? Maybe, once, twice, three times tops per season unless you lived in their home market. The All-Star Game put the best of the league on the ice all at once, showing you the best of the best.
So the fact that I, with a few keystrokes and right-clicks and Firefox tabs, can see all of Steven Stamkos’ goals from the 2014-15 season, or hell, all his goals from last night, makes the showcasing of the All-Star Game less and less relevant.
The National Hockey League understands this. It’s one of the few things they’ve been ahead on. While they are terrible at marketing the damned thing, and even worse at creating the sweaters (OH MY EYES), the adjustments they’ve made to the All-Star Game, and even further the Winter Classic, have been great for the league. From the North America vs. World format, to the recent Team Captains and Drafts, they’ve tried to stay one step ahead of the game, and not let their mid-season spectacle become stale.
But like the Winter Classic, they have a problem understanding a key concept: there can be too much of a good thing.
That’s why I fear this upcoming All-Star Tournament. This All-Star Game format is the equivalent of the Stadium Series. What’s the difference between Minnesota’s game against Chicago, and Montreal’s at Boston, aside from it being played on New Year’s Day? The reality is not a whole lot. The additional outdoor games thus have saturated the appeal of the Winter Classic, and now hockey outside is slowly starting to become a gimmick.
I love 3-on-3 overtime in the NHL. I think it’s the best thing implemented since the two-line pass. Hybrid icing? The Brodeur trapezoid? Coach’s challenges? Take ‘em or leave ‘em. But 3-on-3 OT adds a level of excitement that just didn’t exist in regular season hockey prior. And the All-Star Game has the potential to ruin its luster.
The entire appeal of 3-on-3 in sudden-death overtime is exactly that. It’s sudden death. Back and forth chances, odd-man rushes, one-timers and crossbars and diving saves. Any one of which could end the game and boost a team into the standings. But 3-on-3 in regulation? There’s no nail-biting. No edge-of-your-seat-THIS-COULD-BE-THE-ONE moment. Suddenly, it’s basketball. Trips down the ice become roughly a 40% chance of scoring. And after you score? Back to center ice for puck drop. Repeat for 20 minutes.
This kills the all urgency, and that whole uncomfortable and wonderful heart-in-your-throat feeling. The concept of 3-on-3 isn’t a success because there’s more open ice—although that has albeit a small part—but because the havoc on the ice with six skaters and two goaltenders happens in overtime. Sudden death hockey does not need 3-on-3 as much as 3-on-3 needs sudden death hockey. Point of reference, every single overtime in the playoffs.
So I propose a solution. A re-reformatting. Not for this year, but maybe down the line. And hopefully not before 3-on-3 becomes its own gimmick.
You know what would have been a better idea for a tournament? Instead of one team from each division for a full twenty minutes, how about two two-line combinations from each division? Sixteen different line combinations on eight separate teams would include just as many stars—and there’s your elite showcasing of players. Two lines from each division battle two lines from the opposing division in their conference. Pacific vs. Central, Atlantic vs. Metropolitan. Not too far off from the current format, just an extra round of games. So, naturally you'd think this would make it longer. But wait—we’ve got a fix for that too.
The next resolution: Each game is now sudden death. Every game. It could take the full 20 minutes. It could take 17 seconds. But every trip down the ice actually means something again. Seeing a goal has weight. There are consequences for allowing a goal, just like in overtime. And you know, maybe that makes players try just a little bit harder.
Now the Finals are here. And here is your traditional "game" format. It's also where things get a little... weird. First, we include a draft. Draft? Yes, an in-game draft. Prior to puck drop, the remaining players from each two-line team draft a third line, and a backup goaltender. Because anyone still in the tourney is likely exhausted at this point. Now we have nine skaters per side, taking shifts, and two goaltenders per team. Exactly like the 2016 All-Star Game format. And we play a full 10-minute hockey period where the team who amasses the most goals wins the game.
You’d have more excitement, more star power, more fan favorites, and still not have a long, overdrawn, score-inflated tournament. But what do I know? I just like watching a good hockey product on the ice.
What I really hope this updated format doesn’t turn into is three games with scoring in the collective 30s. The 17-16s. The 18-15s. Twenty minutes of hockey with a goal every other trip down the ice. What good is goal scoring if the excitement leading up to it just isn’t there? And I’m going to watch. Somewhat for curiosity, but mostly because I love the sport and commit myself to following it. But right now, this feels like a situation where the format of the spectacle will outshine and overshadow the actual product it puts out.