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.