You probably didn’t notice, but the National Hockey League held its all-star game last week.
As a league with low ratings and a small fanbase, the NHL did exactly the wrong thing. It screwed up the game.
It aired on Versus, which, apparently, is actually a real cable station. It was also played on a Wednesday night, dampening some of the excitement that an all-star weekend can generate. And in its biggest error, the league likely rigged the vote in its waning weeks to prevent Rory Fitzpatrick – an unremarkable defenseman who was the subject of a write-in vote movement on the Internet – from playing, eliminating the incentive for many casual fans intrigued by the “Vote for Rory” cause to watch the game.
It’s a shame, too, because when the NHL gets it right, it’s one of the few all-star games actually worth watching.
When I think of all-star games, I expect a series of days filled with the sport’s best players and biggest personalities. The game should resemble, in some form, the sport that’s played every other day of the season. A cool skills competition doesn’t hurt, either.
Baseball can’t do this. Neither can football. And it’s not really something either sport can fix.
Both sports suffer because they’re not played like they are during the rest of the season. In an all-star game, everyone expects to play, ensuring that the starters, supposedly the best players, have little influence over the outcome. Nobody goes to a regular-season game planning to see a team use all of its bullpen or three different quarterbacks, but in an all-star world, it’s an unwritten rule that destroys the flow of the contest.
Baseball hasn’t helped itself with its decision making, either. I recognize there have been some great games and great moments, like Cal Ripken, Jr.’s home run in his final all-star game, but I can’t help but feel the Mid-Summer Classic has lost some of its luster. The home run derby was fun when I was kid, but how many times can I watch Bobby Abreu and Ryan Howard slug it out? Can’t the MLB devise some other contest, like base running or a pitching game, to shake things up?
And in what is surely a column on its own, the misguided attempt to give the game meaning by awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins should end immediately. I know I would be upset if I got just three home games in the World Series because Barry Bonds opted not to turn a single into a double during the fourth inning of a mid-July exhibition.
Football, on the other hand, is pretty much out of luck. You certainly couldn’t play the game during the season, but by the time the Pro Bowl is played, no one really cares about football, including many of the players. The college games are plagued by the same problem, and the fact that there are more senior games than I can keep track of doesn’t help, either. I think they even invented some cardinal directions for some new bowl game this year.
Where those two sports fail, basketball – and hockey, if it chooses – get things right.
The NBA has it down pat. Commissioner David Stern has transformed the three-hour All-Star Game into All-Star Weekend, an event.
Activities commence on Friday with the Rookie challenge, where a team of top rookies takes on a team of second-year stars. The games haven’t been too competitive recently (the sophomores have won by at least 20 points the past four years), but still, it’s a way to showcase younger talent and get people ready for the next two days of competition.
Saturday night is filled with skills. There’s two shooting competitions – the 3-point contest and “Shooting Stars,” which teams stars from the NBA, WNBA and an NBA alumni – that are solid. There’s also a relatively new skills competition that involves essentially an obstacle course of different tasks. The last four winners have been Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Baron Davis and Jason Kidd, so there’s some tough competition in this each year.
And, of course, there’s the Slam Dunk contest. The event was eliminated in the late ’90s after a few years of declining interest, but it was brought back in 2000, and Vince Carter single-handedly revived the art with a performance that included finishing a dunk with his elbow through the hoop. And if the dunks aren’t enough, the reactions of the league’s more veteran players on the sideline could probably be a show of its own.
Most important, the NBA shines. It isn’t plagued by the problem like baseball and football, because most basketball teams have a large rotation, so everyone is going to get in. Defense might be lacking, but recent games have been high-scoring, competitive and exciting.
And as dissimilar as the sports may be, the two can provide similar all-star experiences.
Hockey teams have big rotations, so everyone can hit the ice without dramatically changing how the game is played, just like basketball. The hockey skills competition is just as fun to watch than the NBA pre-game festivities. Promote it and make it Friday or Saturday like it used to be. Turnit into an event.
And remember NHL, the game is supposed to be for the fans, so let them have their fun. If they want Rory Fitzpatrick to start, let him start. It’s tough to argue that it will challenge the sanctity of a game that has gone through a number of format changes over the past few years.
Do this, and I might take the time to figure out what channel Versus is.
– Herman can be reached at email@example.com.