January 18, 2011
The first NHL All-Star Game Fantasy Draft will be held next Friday night in Raleigh, and it could be a game-changer for how these exhibition game rosters are chosen -- and not just for hockey.
For puckheads, it's provided some much-needed buzz for a midseason event that has its share of detractors and those who want the game eliminated outright.
"It's funny: I see a lot of people really [pooping] on it, but not a lot of them are guys that played in them," said Brendan Shanahan(notes), NHL VP of hockey and business development. "When I was a kid, I loved the All-Star Game. It was almost like seeing actors out of character."
Shanahan was an All-Star Game fan before he became an all-star himself. He was tasked with reinventing the event, and the result is this Fantasy Draft format that debuts this season.
We spoke with Shanahan last night about the new format, its challenges and how the players have taken to it. Oh, and we got a great Mario story out of him, too. Enjoy:
SHANAHAN: They asked about Sid's health. I think the respect level for Sid among his peers has never been higher, but I also think the seriousness of concussions [is important]. Everybody just wants to make sure he's taking care of himself and trying to get back on the ice.
Let's talk about the structure of the Draft. Goalies have to be taken by the 10th round and defensemen have to be taken by the 15th round; what's the origin for those restrictions?
SHANAHAN: Originally, we were going to tell them to draft who they wanted, when they wanted. But when we started doing mock drafts in the office, you realize [poop]: If I'm drafting against you, and you took your goalies in the first few rounds, because you're a goalie freak, then the reality is that I'm not going to draft a goalie [until late] because you've essentially picked mine. I'm not going to waste a pick on a goalie because I can just wait until the end to draft them. The last six guys standing could have been predetermined; totally bad, dead TV.
We tinkered with goalies by the 12th round, and all other ways. But for us, we got the most interesting results this way.
You have to put those [restrictions] in, or else it'll become boring.
So it might be a case like in a real fantasy draft, where once you see a goalie taken they'll just all go in the next few picks.
That's what was fun. It's like that old saying in boxing: Everyone's got a plan before they get hit. That's how it was: Regardless of you many times you did the mock draft with a plan, the other guy would do something you weren't expecting and you'd have to change it.
Are the teams on the clock?
We're not giving them a clock. We talked about that, but when everyone does the mock draft there's a rhythm to it where the clock becomes unnecessary.
There was talk earlier in the development of the Draft that there wasn't going to be a "last man standing" or "Mr. Irrelevant" on stage after the final pick. Is that still the case?
At first, Rob Blake(notes) and I were trying to brainstorm what we would have enjoyed about the All-Star Game. We thought it might be tough being the last guy, so we started putting mechanisms in place: Maybe when it gets down to the final six, we split them up into groups of three. We had all of these different ideas.
So I said to the NHLPA, 'Let's start talking to the players, see if they're even into it before I take this to Gary [Bettman].' And the players were like, 'We're really into it, but you don't have to soften this for us. We're totally want this last pick.'
Guys were calling me, guys were giving feedback to the PA. I was like, 'You really want to subject yourself to this?' And they'd say, 'Hey man, we're all All-Stars. It's funny. This is what we do. This is what we've grown up with.'
They're also really savvy too, in a way, because they seem to understand that people can relate to the anxiety of the last pick as much, or more, than they can relate to the first pick.
Sports fans want to see these guys who are already picked first squirm a little bit. And it wasn't us that thought of that -- it was the players.
You think the guy taken last is going to be in good humor?
It's all in good fun, but with an underlying emotion of 'I'll show them' that's been completely absent from All-Star Games in recent years.
Everyone keeps focusing on the guy going last, but the reality of it is that if you go 10th, then you think you should have gone 7th. If you go fifth, you think you're better than the four guys who went in front of you. If you go second, you're mad at the guy who didn't take you first, and you want to beat him.
I ran it past some perennial all-stars, and Luc Robitaille told me that if he had been taken last, he'd go home, get some sleep and then win the MVP.
[With regard to the last pick], if anyone watched "24/7" you'll realize these guys love to tease and be teased. They came back to us and said, ‘We're really teasing a guy about being an all-star. He's probably the best player on his team.'
I keep talking to people about the storylines for this Draft, like if the Sedins will get split up. And I'm like, of course they're getting split up: The players take a perverse pleasure in splitting the Sedins or putting Sid and Malkin on different teams.
I think that's the best way of putting it: The perverse pleasure (laughs).
It doesn't end with the Draft. The next day, the captains choose who competes in each event. They'll flip a coin, and the loser of the toss has to put their fastest skater first and then Team B will match with one of their guys.
The question Blakey and I would always try to answer: Why is it the All-Star Game wasn't competitive until the last five minutes, but give two guys a ping-pong paddle ...?
I think it's always been a mistake to make this look like a real game. I've played in All-Star Games before where someone from the League would pull me aside and say, "Throw some hits out there. Rattle some people." And I don't want to do that. It's an All-Star Game.
If seems like the fan vote this year might have been marginalized a little bit. Is that a concern at all, or something you might look at next year?
I hear both sides to it. I hear people say we used to pick 12, and now we pick 6. And I've also heard fans say that it's ridiculous that we have four Montreal Canadiens or all Blackhawks and Penguins. It's whatever market that's the most motivated that year.
In the end, people have to realize that the Fantasy Draft is driven towards fans. Some of the voting was taken away from them, but the concept of the Fantasy Draft is sort of a gift to them. Our hope was that every fan who does fantasy hockey or football or anything would be into it.
It's funny: a mom at a school was talking to me about it, and couldn't name a single player, but asked if it was like 'picks in kickball'. Every sports fan can relate to schoolyard picking teams.
I think the biggest gift you can give to the fans is an entertaining weekend.
I got voted as a starter the year I was in Hartford. It was the year when Lemieux, Jagr and Francis were 1-2-3 in scoring by a huge margin. And it was Lemieux, Jagr and me that were voted in as starters. I was grateful, but a little bit embarrassed and humiliated.
Mario came up to me after warm-ups and said, 'Hey, so me, you, and Jags are going to start the game together, but after the first shift, you're going to go to this line and we're going to play with Ronnie.'
I was like, 'OK, cool. Thank you fans for 40 seconds in heaven.'
Do you think the selections this year balanced merit vs. fame?
I think it is a balance. It's based on what a guy did this year, in the playoffs, or for his career. It's not perfect. Maybe because of that cushion of having a few extra players picked in the rookie thing too ... if we had two or three more picks, there would be guys that were really disturbing. It's a nice thing to have too many all-stars than not enough.
I love seeing Marc Staal(notes) (of the New York Rangers) there. He's not going to lead the League in scoring, but he's probably the team's best player this season. You have Patrick Sharp(notes) who's been great for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, and Patrick Kane(notes) who was arguably the best American player at the Olympics and maybe the best Olympian, and scored the game-winning goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. You do wish each team could have two or three more guys.
Finally, are you happy with where the buzz is for this thing right now?
Yeah, but again: I'm someone who doesn't take it too serious. There have been good All-Star Games and there have been bad ones. But I always wanted to be considered an All-Star and wanted to play in the game. I remember not going one year, and thinking about how relaxed I'd be. And then I got down to Florida and I was bummed about not being an all-star.
It's a fun event, and I truly do believe that the All-Stars want to be there. It'll be very easy for a critic to say, 'This is not a real hockey game.' And I'll say, 'You're right. There are 2,000 other games to watch.'