Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A radical and completely unrealistic plan to save the NHL all-star game

Hockey fans can't agree on much. We can't figure out how many points a game should be worth, or what size the rinks or the nets should be, or whether fighting still has a place in the game. We can't decide whether instant replay works or how long a suspension should be or whether a puck shot over the glass should be a penalty. You have your opinions, I have mine, and I'm right because you're an idiot. That's just how hockey fandom works.

But this is the time of year when we can set all of that aside. For just a few days each season, hockey fans around the world can all come together and complain about perhaps the only thing that we all agree on: The all-star game is terrible, an unwatchable mess that any true fan should be embarrassed by, and it's all the NHL's fault.

But all of us are wrong.

Oh, not about the game being terrible. Don't worry, that part's indisputable. It's the blame that's misplaced. I've been dumping on the league for its various failings for years, but this time they're off the hook. The all-star game is a disaster, sure, but for once, it's not the NHL's fault.

Credit where it's due

If anything, the league deserves some kudos for at least trying to fix things, unlike some other problems we could mention. They've played with the format, mixed up the teams, and even briefly added a fantasy draft that was so much fun it was copied by more successful leagues. This year's move to 3-on-3 may or may not end up being an improvement, but let's give the league some credit: At least they're acknowledging the need to do something.

But it doesn't matter, because nothing the league does will make the all-star game watchable, and that will be true for as long as nobody addresses the one problem that's slowly but surely killing it. There's only one way to save the NHL all-star game, and there's nothing the league can do to make it happen, because it's not their fault. All the format tweaks and fun ideas and silly bells and whistles are just distractions, and they won't truly matter unless one simple but crucial change takes place.

The players need to try.

That's it. That's all. If the players decided to try, the NHL all-star game can be fun again. If not, it will be terrible for as long as it lives, which mercifully won't likely be longer than a few more seasons.

Now let's not get crazy here

Before we got any further, let's be clear here on what we mean by "try", because we're going to be setting the bar awfully low. The NHL season is a marathon, and by the all-star break, the players are drained. Everyone is hurt, or exhausted, or both. The idea that anyone would show up and bust their behinds at an exhibition game is silly.

Nobody is asking for anything approaching real effort. We know we're not going to see anyone throw a body check. We get that no defenseman is going to start laying the lumber to clear out the crease, and no forward is going to hit the ice to try to block a shot. They'll be no bad blood, no scrums or puck battles, and exactly none of that intensity that makes competitive hockey so much fun to watch. There was a time when all-star games really were played that way, but that ship sailed long ago.

So no, all-star players of the NHL, nobody in their right mind is asking you to try your hardest. We're just asking you to try, period. Like, at all. Even a little bit.

In short: We need you to be more like Al Iafrate.

Anatomy of an all-star moment

One of my favorite all-star memories came from 1990. That year's game was held in Pittsburgh, and quickly turned into a showcase for hometown hero Mario Lemieux. He scored a record-tying four goals, the most memorable of which was the third. Lemieux breaks down the right side and carries the puck through the faceoff circle as Iafrate cuts towards him from the other side. Iafrate goes for the puck, but Lemieux toe-drags around him, a beautiful move that left him all alone in front. A desperate Iafrate dives and tries to swipe at the puck with his stick, but his momentum carries him past and leaves him sliding across the ice helplessly as Lemieux dekes past Mike Vernon to score.

It was a magical moment, one that brought the crowd to its feet and had fans screaming at their TVs in overjoyed disbelief at home, and it still holds up well today. And most importantly, it's a moment that could never happen in today's game, because the beauty of the play relies on Iafrate actually trying to stop Lemieux.

Iafrate might wish he hadn't, since he wound up on every highlight reel for years to come, but fans got a memory that would last for generations. If Iafrate had played it like today's players would – if he'd simply wandered over at half-speed, disinterestedly poking at the puck as Lemieux cut by before turning up ice to join the next rush – the goal would be forgotten.

That's the nature of hockey. Great goals are only great if they come at the expense of somebody trying to stop you. If nobody tries, nobody can be great and nothing matters. There were a record 29 goals scored in last year's all-star game. Can you remember a single one today? I can't, and I was there.

Every sport requires effort, which is why every league's all-star game is inevitably worse than the real thing. But hockey may be the least watchable sport in the world when it's played at half-speed. And yet, at some point over the years, the NHL's best players decided that offering up even the slightest effort in an all-star game was unacceptable.

Why? The first instinct is to point at laziness, but that can't be it. NHL players work their tails off all season long, and that goes double for the superstars – you can call these guys a lot of things, but lazy isn't one of them. No, there's something else going on here.

When respecting the game goes bad

Hockey players are allowed to punch faces and hack ankles and elbow throats everyone is fine with it. But there's one unforgivable sin that can never be forgiven: Not respecting the game. You can't celebrate too much. Your shootout move can't be too creative. You can't run up the score.

And somehow, breaking a sweat in the all-star game feels like it's fallen into the same category. It's become yet another misguided attempt at sportsmanship, as if even pretending to care in a game that doesn't count in the standings is somehow wrong.

Once you start thinking about the game that way, it becomes self-reinforcing. That defenseman isn't trying, so the forward had better not make him look bad. If the forwards aren't trying, then the goalie can't go sprawling out to try to make a highlight reel stop. If the goalie isn't bothering to move, then don't be the defenseman who looks silly by actually trying to break up a pass.

Play the game that way for a few years, and the whole things just spirals downward into the mess that it's become today. Forget about body checks or blocked shots – now you've got a game where even winding up for a slap shot is somehow out of bounds.

These days, even putting a shot on net feels wrong, at least until you've tic-tac-toed around the zone to create an open net. So now we're left with a game where there's no back-checking in the defensive zone, because everyone is waiting for a breakout pass that would send the rush the other way. But when they do get that rush, they don't want to do anything with it. What, actually wind up and try to shoot the puck past a goaltender? Who does that?

Think about how dull the NFL's Pro Bowl is. Now imagine how much worse it would be if every touchdown had to be preceded by a half dozen laterals at the goal line, all while the defense stood around with their hands on their hips, because nobody wanted to show anyone up by actually trying. That's the NHL all-star game. And that's why it's terrible.

So the all-stars who haven't yet been able to get out of heading to Nashville this weekend, consider this simple plea. We don't want to see anyone get hurt. We're not asking for anything remotely resembling intensity. We're not expecting blood or bruises, or even much in the way of sweat. No checking or blocking or skating at full speed.

No, we just want you to ask yourself one question: What would Al Iafrate do?

The answer: Try. At least a little bit. Just enough so that one or two of those several dozen goals you'll be scoring might still be remembered 26 hours later, let alone 26 years.




36 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Not at all. For the time being, you'll be able to find my work right here, at Vice, and elsewhere.

      Delete
    2. Great news since i can access Vice at work :)

      Delete
  2. With this new format of 4 teams playing 3 on 3. Is there only two jersey colours for 4 teams?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, because rather than purchasing one jersey from their team's division, fans can now purchase two with their favorite player's name on the back.

      Delete
  3. Turn the All-Star game into a contest between NHL All-Stars and All-Stars from the US and Canadian pro women's leagues, played under the women's rules. That seems very likely to produce actual effort.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's not the worst idea I've ever heard. It would be the biggest showcase for the women's league, so you know that at least the women would try. And that would force the men to at least try a little so as to not appear patronizing towards the women.

      Delete
    2. It would also force the men to try at least a little in order to not get their butts kicked by what will undoubtedly be a highly motivated women's squad.

      Delete
    3. Have we really reached the point with political correctness where people have deluded themselves into thinking that the result of such a match-up with the NHL players trying would result in anything less than a 50-0 blow-out?

      Respecting the women's game is great, but fantasy should be for kids.

      Delete
    4. I was thinking that each team would have both men and women on it. Yeah, the women on their own couldn't beat a high-school boys team.

      Delete
    5. That was once true, women's hockey has improved a lot over the last 20 years. I'd say the Canadian and US women's national teams COULD beat high-school boys (or Midget AAA) nowadays, as long as there's no bodychecking involved.

      Delete
  4. "Hockey fans can't agree on much. We can't figure out how many points a game should be worth..."
    2 points for a win; 0 points for an OT/shootout loss. Duh.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, actually, you wouldn't really need to make it 2 points then... And, I guess it wouldn't be terrible to give a point for a shootout loss, and... Crap, you're right!

      Delete
  5. Tremendous write up. Had not thought of it this way before. Great stuff here!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. OMG, the most amazing thing about that 1990 Mario clip... MARV ALBERT WAS THE ANNOUNCER! why isn't anyone talking about this???

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hold that thought. It's going to be this week's YouTube Breakdown clip.

      Delete
  7. Watch the CWHL and NWHL All-Star Games, NHL players--no one gets hurt or too tired, but they're a lot of fun and everyone tries.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The problem seems less to me that players have collectively decided it is unsporting to actually try, and more that players are increasingly aware of the health risks involved in full-speed hockey so aren't willing to take on any additional risk just to do well in an exhibition whose only real meaning came when they were invited.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But it can't be just that. For star players who are already locked into a roster spot, a typical preseason game is even more meaningless than the all-star game -- at least the latter has an audience watching. And yet they still manage to put out at least some small degree of effort. Preseason hockey is a ripoff, but it's nowhere near as bad as the all-star game.

      Delete
    2. If the stars put out any actual effort in preseason, it is likely due to the ribbing they will face all season long, both from their teammates who are fighting hard for roster spots during those same preseason games, and from their hometown fans who would probably take advantage of an excuse to shame a player they don't like (for whatever reason) and wish management would trade for "someone who looks like they want to be here".

      I'm not sure if there's any way to apply that sort of shame to an all-star game since these players will be teammates only this one time.

      Delete
    3. I think the reason why star players try during the pre-season is because their teammates - the ones who AREN'T locked into a roster spot - ARE playing their guts out. The stars have the choice of putting in a lacklustre effort and skating at half speed, in which case they look bad in front of the fans, the management, and especially their teammates, or they up their game to match the effort the borderline cases are putting in.

      Not to mention, the other team will have players trying too (for the same reason - some of them are fighting for roster spots). Nothing increases the tempo and intensity of a game like competition. Even if you were a star player who only wanted to give 50% effort in this mean-nothing game, your attitude will probably change when some fourth line plug comes along, smashes you into the boards, steals the puck and scores.

      The ASG, by comparison, doesn't have that fire. If we're lucky, John Scott might provide it this year by dint of the fact that he actually wants to be there, but I'm not holding my breath. And even if he does, that does nothing to address the long-term health of the game.

      The league needs a way to inject competition into the ASG. Maybe they do that by offering some token to the winning side (like home-ice advantage during the SCF), or maybe they do that by giving them a cause to play for.

      The original ASG was done in support of a player who very nearly died by smashing his head on the ice after being hit in the game; why not bring that spirit back? Assign each all-star team a charity - the winning team gets 1 million dollars donated from the league to their respective charity (and perhaps a smaller sum to the losing team so the charities involved all get something out of the game). Play up the PR angle, have the players mingle with the representatives of the charity over the weekend (sick kids, injured veterans, etc.); not only would it solve the issue of players playing hookie (because you'd look like a complete dick if you did so), I think it would add just enough incentive to compete to give us a proper game out of the whole thing, and it has the added bonus of giving the league some positive press.

      Delete
    4. While the charity idea is nice, the league doesn't want to be seen NOT paying to a charity.

      You could award super-all-stars after the game for trying harder. But it might just be easier to try to divide the all stars into groups that might breed more effort, such as by age, country, college alma mater.

      Delete
  9. They need to bring back the classic East/West format, with World/North America in World Cup years.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great article as always. The one minor defense I will bring up is that "trying" increases the chance of injury...which is something no team or no player wants in a meaningless game. If it's a playoff game, or even a regular season game, I want to see players giving it their all...and they DO give it their all, because there is some potential benefit to doing so. So long as the ASG means nothing at all, the "try" will be lacking, but no injuries will occur to sideline those stars from the REAL games.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just take this scenario for example. Your all-star forward, let's name him John Shmavares. He's skating around the ice in this all star game making lots of plays, having lots of fun, but "trying" just a little. All of a sudden captain Shmavares get's bumped by another try-hard hockey player on the ice with him and now captain Shmavares is out for the rest of the reason with a broken metatarsel injury. Is this the time of year you want captain Shmavares, out of the lineup? I'll answer for you. No, it's not ideal. Hence, please don't try hard captains of teams that need you, not in a meaningless game.

      Delete
  11. Bring in only the top players under 22, have them play against the draft eligible players from the CHL prospects game, or draft 2 teams comprised of up and coming drafted and draft eligible players.

    It may lack some of the star power and name recognition of the current format but the undrafted kids will go to the wall to raise their draft stock while the older kids will want to show off vs the next generation.

    ReplyDelete
  12. How about changing the game format to something like the MLB does (or maybe used to do... it's been a while since I've followed baseball) and give the winning conference an advantage of home ice during the playoffs? Or if we go back to East/West, then give the advantage during the Final. Then you'd REALLY see them try!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Staking home field in the World Series is the stupidest rule in professional sport. Even dumber than the trapezoid. I give MLB a half a golf clap for trying to make their ASG mean something, but I'd rather 162 (or 82 in the NHL) games decide home advantage in the championship, not one exhibition game in the middle of the season, where 95% of the participants won't even be in the championship series.

      Delete
  13. A few suggestions to get them to try harder:
    Give the game winning conference an automatic one game lead in the cup final.
    Split voting into the most popular (best players) and the least popular (worst players) and combine them on the ice, so any line has a combination of the best and worst in the league at every position at the same time (except goalies). This includes refs.
    Just do the skills competition and no game.
    A rookies-only all-star game (combines effort with new blood every year).
    No coaches.
    No referees.
    Lastly, since this is now a money league, just pay the winners a couple mil each. That's the players only motivation anyway. Make it worth their while to block shots, fight, and take elbows to the chops.

    ReplyDelete
  14. What this game needs is 1 angry guy who just doesn't give a damn about the NHL's marketers (aka Disney-folk). He's going to go in there and throw a few checks, make some hard plays and then the other guys will get their blood up, get competitive and - boom - a good game will break out. Someone like John Scott.

    Also, you've neglected my favourite All Star goal - Owen Nolan 'calling his shot' and making it happen. Classic.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Just so we're clear, these are the correct thoughts:
    -The nets should be a bit bigger. So should the ice surface. The game should be adjusted slightly for the change in those who play it. Keep the same ratios sure, but it isn't changing the fabric of the game.
    -Fighting should be minimized. At least 5 +game with suspension for repeat offences. That being said, the game is naturally diminishing it regardless of the rules.
    -Instant replay works, but needs improvement. A 10 min. delay to cancel out a great goal because someone's toe came a millimetre off the ice while a micrometre of the puck is still touching the blue line just doesn't improve the game.
    -Suspensions should be longer almost across the board. And the Union should support the victim as much as the perpetrator. So should the guilty's teammates.
    -It happens for the same reason as icing does...by accident or to relive pressure. The penalty should be the same - No line-change.

    ReplyDelete
  16. "You have your opinions, I have mine, and I'm right because you're an idiot. That's just how hockey fandom works."

    It's lines like that, that make me nearly crack a rib from laughter, that keep me reading every article Down Goes Brown puts out.

    ReplyDelete
  17. How about a Grinders versus Fancy-Dans format? The Grinders don't know how to not bring effort and the Danglers would probably be embarrassed to lose to them, so they would try harder. Andrew Shaw captain of the Grinders, Crosby pilots the Fancy-Dans. Casual sports fans might even like the "Rocky" angle and tune in to root for the Grinders...

    ReplyDelete
  18. I thought the league addressed the "trying" issue with the only thing that will truly motivate today's player - the winning team gets paid! The prospect of walking away from the weekend empty handed versus with a nice cheque has to provide motivation.

    As for making it more competitive - have AHL goaltenders. The NHL goalies are scared to pull a groin or injure a knee trying to stop dekes and slap shots. So bring in the kids who are motivated to make a name for themselves and would gladly accept the injury risk to be on the big stage. Even if 30 goals are scored on inferior keepers, who cares? It is what happens anyways. Besides, what star player wants to hear how he was shut down by a minor league goalie? That will be motivation to help them try as well.

    ReplyDelete
  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete