NHL All-Star Game weekend
Raleigh Convention Center, RBC Center and elsewhere
Broadcast schedule on Versus:
Fantasy draft, Jan. 28, 8 p.m.
Skills competition, Jan. 29, 7 p.m.
All-Star Game, Jan. 30, 4 p.m.

I admit it. Although I am hockey-mad to the point of determining the amount of time I microwave leftovers by my favorite players’ jersey numbers, I haven’t watched the National Hockey League All-Star Game for years. Nor football’s All-Pro and baseball’s All-Star games, for that matter. And I’m not alone.

Players, too, increasingly have avoided the All-Star games. They’re usually dull and uncompetitive because no player wants to get hurt. Little more than marketing platforms for the league and its sponsors, they afford the lucky players not participating a breath before the excruciating drive to the playoffs.

But this year is different. Players and fans alike are excited about a radical new way of selecting the teams. And Carolina Hurricanes fans should be particularly pumped for the compliment this year’s game represents for the franchise.

The NHL All-Star Game takes place in Raleigh’s RBC Center this Sunday, which will be the culmination of a weekend’s worth of activities. The first big event for hardcore hockey fans happens Friday night at the first-ever NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft when, in an innovative and risky gambit by the league, the team captains pick their teams playground-styleor, with hockey, frozen-pond stylejust like when they were kids playing in the neighborhood.

Carolina Hurricane Eric Staal will take turns selecting from a pool of 42 players, including teammate Cam Ward, with the other captain, Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings, in a live event to be televised on Versus.

Anyone who remembers the playground ritual, though, knows that captains pick the best players first … and the least desirable ones last. Even All-Stars are worried about being last on the sheet. At the announcement in November, it was suggested that something might be done to alleviate this ignominy, but it seems that was either never figured out or the potential drama of it grew in appealthe reality show aspect added to a fantasy draft.

Conceived by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and several retired players and active veterans, the revamping of the team-selection process is another step in a joint players-ownership effort to make the sport more appealing to fans.

Hockey has struggled with its national profile. After a collective-bargaining impasse scuttled the entire 2004–05 season in a lockout, players and owners alike recognized that they had to make radical changes to win back fans and find new ones. Rules were changed to increase scoring; the shootout was added to resolve tie games; and the league’s ham-handed marketing style was put under the microscope.

Seen as the ugly duckling in the team sports pond even before the lockout, hockey remains in a niche below football, baseball and basketball. League marketers will tell you that because hockey players are not recognizable, they are not marketable stars. Additonally, fewer than half the league’s players are American, and their helmets and goalie masks render them anonymous. But how much of a football player’s face is visible behind his face mask?

The NHL tends to anoint one or two current players as marketable, and then crams them down your throat as hard as possible. It can seem a bit desperate and off-putting. The hockey media has its role in this one-dimensionality, too. All-Star game coverage has focused as much on whether Sidney Crosby’s recovery from a concussion will allow him to play (it won’t) as it has on the never-before fantasy player draft. Picking up on the media’s ambivalence, fans have been split on the message boards, either grumbling about the changes or expressing excitement about them.

And then there’s the decision to push the sport into Southern markets. Bettman is roundly detested by many fans for what is seen as misguided expansion into warm-weather markets. But he has to be taking some satisfaction from debuting this innovative idea in Raleigh, the success story of the NHL’s foray into the Southeast.

Hockey almost didn’t happen here, though. Before buying the Hartford Whalers in 1994 and moving them to North Carolina in 1997, Canes owner Peter Karmanos and general manager Jim Rutherford nearly won the bid for an expansion franchise in Tampa in 1992. But the NHL awarded it to a group fronted by Hall of Famers Phil and Tony Esposito instead. The Lightning have endured mismanagement and debt despite winning the Stanley Cup the year before the lockout.

Other Southeastern teams have fared even worse. The Nashville Predators have been financially crippled by aggressive attempts to move the team to Kansas City and Hamilton, Ontario, despite on-ice success. Miami’s Florida Panthers and the Atlanta Thrashers have made the playoffs only once, combined, in the last decade, and Thrashers ownership announced last week that the franchise has lost about $130 million since 2005. Bitter fans in colder climes see the Southeast as having stolen franchises that are rightfully theirs.

But comparatively, the Canes have thrived and won a Stanley Cup of their own, and this weekend is an opportunity for both the league and the city to bask a little. And to make a few bucks, too.

“We’ve looked at Atlanta, Dallas, Montreal and Los Angeles, and they have recorded an economic impact in excess of over $10 million,” says Alison Barnwell, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Council, of recent All-Star games. “It’s restaurants, it’s transportation companies, a lot of the local vendors that the NHL uses for some of their parties and their events.” (If $10 million seems an unreasonable figure, that represents $550 or so of spending in Raleigh over the course of the weekend for each of the approximately 18,500 people in the RBC Center Sunday night.)

It’s merchandise, too. James Blitch, the Hurricanes’ retail manager, was a little out of breath one afternoon last week. Looking around The Eyethe Canes’ merchandise outlet in the RBC Centerhe might have been thinking that an actual hurricane had come through his store. Cardboard boxes spewed merchandise in ramshackle piles. His employees were strewn among the red and black debris, scanning tags and writing on clipboards.

Blitch and his team were in the process of changing over the store’s inventory to about 85 percent All-Star game merchandise. But there was a problem. A lot of the merchandise hadn’t even been made yet.

“Obviously, jerseys will be the number one seller. But the thing is, this year, with the new format change, not knowing what guys are going to be on what team will hamper the jersey sales,” Blitch sighed.

But after Friday night’s draft event, sewing machines will kick into motion.

“We do have a lettering company coming in, and we will be customizing jerseys over the weekend. We have guys working all night starting Friday night after the draft, doing jerseys of the guys as they’re drafted.”

The NHL Fantasy Draft is an idea whose time has come, since fans increasingly identify more with individual players than with favorite teams. We used to ask, “Who won?” but now we ask, “Who scored?” It’s a changeover of allegiance that has accelerated since the dawn of the free-agency era, before which players switching teams midcareer was relatively uncommon.

Fantasy sports have been around in one form or another for a long time but only came into the mainstream with the Internet boom in the mid-1990s. Twenty years ago, rotisserie geeks toting notebooks full of stats garnered derogatory eye rolling. Now they meet their buddies for a weekend in Las Vegas to draft players, and they trade them all year on their smartphones.

This is huge money now. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association reports its market size at 27 million Americans and growing. In a 2009 report, eMarketer estimated that fantasy sports website revenue will approach $3 billion in 2012, double what it was in 2007. And leagues have realized that selling branding, advertising and access to statistics is just as viable a revenue stream as replica jerseys and those annoying flags for the roof of your car. In fact, the revenue streams feed one other.

Executives and marketers in the other team sports have to be giving full marksand kicking themselvesto Bettman for reinventing the annual All-Star obligation around fantasy sports. When the league launched this idea in November, there were a lot of unanswered questions, and even Bettman’s not sure what to expect when the cameras start rolling. In a multibillion-dollar business, it’s simply unheard of to make up a national event as you go along.

But the fact that the NHL has the guts to do this is a healthy sign. I’ll be watching, that’s for sure.

Follow Chris Vitiello’s tweets from the All-Star Game @IndyweekSports.