NASHVILLE – When you have the hero’s journey of John Scott, Jaromir Jagr wigs, Chewbacca masks and a goalie making saves with a guitar, the actual NHL All-Star Game itself might have been overshadowed a bit.
But the NHL nailed it. It really did. The 3-on-3 format not only worked this season, but showed good potential for being the format that finally figured out how to take a moribund event and inject both excitement and drama into it.
Along with putting the skill of the NHL’s best and brightest on display, of course.
The genesis of the 3-on-3 format was a desire from the NHL and the NHLPA to go in a different direction after last season’s unwatchable game in Columbus; and from Nashville Predators officials to have something new as the hosts of the 2016 game.
“We sat down and we said that we don’t seem to be getting the bang for our buck at All-Star. Let’s reevaluate what we’re trying to do at All-Star,” said Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the executive director of the NHLPA. “Everyone was in agreement that it needs to be something special and unique. It should be a great weekend for hockey, and it hasn’t seemed to be translating like that for the last few years.”
The Predators had a hefty investment in All-Star Weekend, and the last thing the team wanted was for the lingering bad taste of the previous All-Star Game to dampen the enthusiasm for theirs.
“We felt very strongly that we wanted to make this the best All-Star Game ever. There was negative feedback about the All-Star Game, so why not make a change?” said Predators GM David Poile last November. “And once we saw the 3-on-3 overtime format … for most hockey guys, general mangers or owners of the clubs as well as the players, we thought it was time to try something different and make it special.”
It was different, and it was special. Here are six reasons the new NHL All-Star Game format was a blockbuster success:
1. It Stopped Trying To Be A Real Hockey Game, And Started Trying To Be A Real Hockey Overtime
Here’s the problem with vegan burgers: They can look like hamburger patties, right down to the fake grill marks, and fit perfectly on a hamburger bun. But take a bite and … well … not a hamburger.
The NHL All-Star Game always looked like an actual hockey game: Same number of players, same length of periods, same rules. But it never actually resembled an actual hockey game because it was a hit-less, methodically paced affair without any semblance of intensity.
So by shifting to the 3-on-3 format, the NHL actually stopped attempting to present a watered-down version of a regular season game and instead presented a slightly-less-intense version of their current overtime format.
Which, it turns out, is more in line with how an All-Star Game should play.
“In the 3-on-3, even in the regular season, there isn’t any hitting. So it felt like we were playing the same kind of game that we were in the regular season,” said Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils.
Don’t underestimate the subtle psychological encouragement that provides: NHL players aren’t motivated to compete in a cheap recreation of a regular-season game. But by playing in a 3-on-3, it almost tricks their brains into competing in something that looks, smells and tastes like overtime.
“In 5-on-5, you don’t want to look like you’re trying to hard. Like if a guy gets a breakaway, do you really want to hack him?” asked Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks. “In 3-on-3, there are all the opportunities to try hard. All the guys in here are dripping sweat.”
2. Actual Stakes And Drama
A lot was made of the $1 million prize for the winning divisional team, but most of the players downplayed that as a motivator.
What does motivate players?
Winning and being eliminated from a tournament.
“That’s exactly what it was,” said Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, of the new elimination tournament format. “You want to win. At the end of the day, you want to win. For everybody in here, we were having fun.”
Two of the games were one-goal affairs, with an extra attacker on the ice at the end. John Gibson had to make a tough save at the buzzer to preserve the Pacific Division’s victory.
“There’s actually something to play for,” said goalie Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. “You wanted to win the mini-tournament.”
3. Goalies Were Given Chance To Shine
Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning predicted that goalies – who have long been nothing more than props in the All-Star Game – would have a chance to shine in the 3-on-3.
“It’ll let the goalies showcase a little bit more than in the 5-on-5, where it seemed like there were a lot more backdoor plays and stuff. Not as many big saves,” he said. “The players are going to have a couple of goals here or there, but I think you’re going to see some big saves in a 3-on-3 format.”
That it did, including this Jedi moment from Jonathan Quick.
If nothing else, the All-Star Game was a reminder that scoring chances, rather than actual goals, are what make hockey exciting. And there were plenty in that 1-0 finale between the Pacific and the Atlantic, but the goalies were up to the task.
4. Breaking Up The Monotony
Twenty-minute period. Musical act. Twenty-minute period, same players. Musical act. Twenty-minute period, same players, final buzzer, MVP gets a car, we all go home.
That’s been the NHL All-Star Game for at least the last 25 years. So this new format breathed new life into it. Three different games provided three different experiences. The musical acts were spread out.
The whole thing felt looser and more relaxed, and yet there was actual anticipation for that finale for the All-Star Game “championship.”
5. Rooting Interests
Quick: Name five players from Team Foligno last season.
We’ll even spot you Nick Foligno.
The All-Star Game works best when there are some ties to NHL allegiances, which is why “East vs. West” was always better than “North America vs. The World” or “Team Alfredsson vs. Team Chara.”
In this case, the allegiances are even more specific: Asking fans to get behind division, rather than conference, rivals.
And for the players, there was a sense of divisional pride on the line. At least when it came to the Pacific.
“I think with the way things have gone this year with our division, and everyone calling it the weakest division in hockey, I think maybe as a group we might try to stick it to them a bit,” said Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano before the game.
After the Pacific Division victory, he relished the way they won the game.
“It was a typical Pacific Division battle for us: 1-0, grind it out,” said Giordano. "One-nothing, grind it out, chip-and-chase sorta game.”
And finally …
6. The Sense Of Fun
It’s almost unfair to project what the 2017 NHL All-Star Game experience will be like, because the John Scott story was so unexpected and so unrepeatable. There’s no question that the cult of personality that surrounded him elevated a very entertaining event into something almost operatic.
But overall, the weekend felt more playful, and not just because of the mullet wing and the Chewbacca mask on Saturday night. It was P.K. Subban sprawled on the ice in an attempt to block a shot that no one wanted to take. It was some fancy scoring moves and dynamic saves in the 3-on-3. It was the odd coach’s challenge on Corey Perry’s goal in the finale, that may or may not have been commissioned by recording artist and celebrity coach Amy Grant, who also gave Subban a serious of shoulder massages during the game.
It was fun.
Which is what it’s supposed to be.
The best news for the NHL coming out of the Nashville All-Star Game is that it doesn’t need another John Scott moment to have a successful All-Star Game. The bones of thing are stronger than they have been for years. And so were the ratings.