RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—Remember when you would play games on the school playground, and there was that one kid who was always picked last? That awkward feeling that would rise as the available players dwindled, peaking at the moment of shared shame and embarrassment when the last kid, usually without his or her name even being called, shuffled over to a team, chosen by default?
This dramatic ignominy is now part of the NHL All-Star Game!
The league announced a radical change in how lineups will be selected for the game, to be held in Raleigh’s RBC Center in late January. Fan balloting will still determine the top players, but then the players will choose two team captains—not necessarily one from each league conference—and those captains will pick their teams sandlot-style from the rest of the players during a live event in Raleigh on January 28.
Brendan Shanahan, Vice President of Hockey and Business Development and hall-of-fame winger who has played in eight of these games himself, explained the change on a conference call Wednesday, “The goal here was to give the game back to the players… So often at the end of practice players picking teams, dividing teams, even going back to their youth, in their driveway or street, playing road hockey, it’s what they’ve done and what they’re used to. It sometimes will bring out the best in them.
“That was the concept, to make it fun and entertaining for the players, let that hopefully translate to all of our spectators.”
Leagues have been trying to figure out how to get all-star games to matter to players, and therefore to fans, for a while now. Baseball’s game determines home-field advantage for the World Series. Football’s game takes place after the Super Bowl annually in Hawaii, which supposedly will attract players as a vacation spot, but scads of athletes skip it each year. Increasingly, hockey players had been skipping their mid-season event too, fearing injury or craving rest for the intense spring stretch drive to the playoffs.
The new selection format hearkens back to childhood games on frozen ponds, but it also taps into the idea of the fantasy draft, which should appeal to fans used to devoting hours of research to drafting players with their buddies. Fantasy sports is now a multi-billion dollar business, as team owners routinely devote entire weekends to their drafts, gathering online or even in vacation destinations.
The players, understandably, are into fantasy sports too. In polling players, Shanahan found that their excitement over the draft was much greater than their fear of being picked last. “Ironically, it’s probably the players that we’ve spoken to that are the least sensitive to that. They sort of laugh about it, kid around about it, almost revel in the potential squirming situations,” he noted. “I can say this: they’re still All-Stars and the All-Star players we’ve polled, it’s the last worry on their mind. They’re not sensitive guys. They like the fact that this draft… as one of them said to me, the guy who goes fifth thinks he should have went third, the guy who went 12th will think he should have gone 10th, so on down the line.”
Details such as how coaches will be matched to teams and what the teams will be called now that the conferences are not battling each other have yet to be worked out. The Young Stars Game, which featured notable rookies and sophomores, has also been dropped. The league will make more of an effort to integrate their best young talent into their circus-like skills competition. But this is really a recognition of the fact that, as teenagers such as Carolina’s Jeff Skinner make bigger debuts at the NHL level, the all-star and young-star rosters were starting to substantially overlap.
In all, this is a coup for the league and for the Hurricanes, who get to play host to this unprecedented event. And with the way that Skinner, Eric Staal, and Cam Ward have been playing, perhaps we’ll be biting nails along with those familiar faces, waiting for their names to be called.