On Saturday night, honoring the Canadian hockey news cycle, the NHL announced its All-Star Game reserves for the weekend celebration in Columbus on Jan. 24-25. Immediately, complaints about snubs were echoing through the canyons of hockey fandom.
There’s generally three types of complaints. There’s general befuddlement over the absences of star players, of which there are many this season; there are the localized “why not this guy instead of this guy for my team?” complaints; and then there’s the rabid “HOW CAN THIS TEAM HAVE A GUY IN THE GAME INSTEAD OF MY TEAM HAVING A THIRD GUY PICKED?!” malarkey.
The latter argument shows a fundamental lack of understanding over what the All-Star Game has become.
Look, there was a time when being selected as an all-star had weight and merit. It was like having a midseason award handed to you for your efforts in the first-half of the season, validating that performance with a golden ticket to join the best in the game for some post-hangover shinny.
But it’s not about that anymore. It’s a midseason marketing showcase that caters to the host city and throws its arms around the rest of the league in an effort to create a 30-franchise celebration.
The shift began in 1985, when the NHL decided to adopt fan balloting. Do vote totals have anything to do with merit? No, just with popularity.
It continued with the Canada, er, “North America” vs. The World format that created a quota system based on origin. That four-season experiment did, however, give us the chance to refer to him as NHL All-Star Dmitri Mironov, going forward.
Then came the NHL Fantasy Draft format in 2011, and the format was redefined again: It had always been star-centric, as every sport’s all-star game is, but now the onus was on identifiable names to make the new format compelling.
Which brings us to the confusing collision of the All-Star Game’s intents: Having big names in the game, while giving every fan base an entry point to watching the game.
I’ve always been a fan of the latter. Growing up in Jersey, it was cool to watch Kirk Muller skate with the conference’s elite players; not only to see how his talent level matched theirs, but because there was a level of validation that no matter how bad your team is, or how disrespected you felt your franchise was, it was still invited to the party.
That’s something lost on those complaining about the "us, not them" snubs this season. Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette wasn’t the only one voicing this sentiment, arguing that P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty deserved spots in the game, but he was one of the most emphatic:
I don’t know what’s uglier here. The All-Star Game uniforms or the team selection. We get Bobby Ryan with his 12 goals and 16 assists, the guy who can’t spell “intense.” We get Phat Phil Kessel, who is to the Maple Leafs what dry rot is to a house. Thanks to fans with devices in hand, we get an entire Blackhawks unit and Zemgus Girgensons, whose name is better than his game: 11 goals, nine assists and a minus-6.
The simple truth? This is a Some-Star Team, not an All-Star Team. There are relative unknowns who deserve to be here, like Jakub Voracek and Tyler Johnson. There are big names who don’t deserve it, like Kessel.
Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson might be a promising young defenceman, but the guy has 19 points and a minus-11. Justin Faulk? He’s a minus-16. You wouldn’t trade Subban for the pair of them and a draft pick.
Now, there’s a lot to agree with here, outside of the fat-shaming of Phil Kessel and the reliance on plus-minus and the idea that the leading scoring in hockey is a “relative unknown” while Max Pacioretty apparently has the name recognition of Rocket Richard.
To not have Subban in the all-star game is sorta insane. He’s the quintessential all-star: a brilliant player, a brilliant spokesman for the league and someone fan will tune in to watch.
But his omission is the byproduct of unforeseen candidates based on merit (Kevin Shattenkirk, Mark Giordano) and unanticipated circumstances (San Jose and Colorado not having breakout candidates at forward) as much as it is the requirement that every team get a taste.
What Jack and a lot of critics don’t seem to understand is that it’s less about the All-Star Game as it is the All-Star Weekend. And yes, there might be a Hurricanes fan or a Coyotes fan that tunes in on Saturday night to cheer on their guy in the skills competition, assuming those fans haven’t converted to watching cricket during this crap-tastic season. Maybe there’s a Devils fan that tunes in to watch Patrik Elias in the all-star game for the last time, even if Elias himself notes no one from the team deserves the honor.
There's something cool about seeing 30 teams get repped; if only for the appearance of parity.
It’s a balancing act for the League that may not quite work in creating an equitable pool of players: Selecting star players to live up the game’s name; rewarding players who “earned” the right to appear in the game, pretending this process is based on merit; and doing fan service by selecting a player from each team.
The argument over that last point is a head-scratcher. The same fans arguing that the All-Star Game should be reserved for elite players from glamour franchises are likely the first ones to complain that the Winter Classic hasn’t come to Minnesota yet. The one example of the NHL attempting to level the ice for all 30 teams, and it gets hit for not having Max Pacioretty on the squad.
On right; as Todd notes, it’s not just about the All-Star Game:
It’s a shame for Pacioretty and Subban because at the end of a career, that’s one of the things they look at when considering a player’s qualifications for the Hall of Fame. How many times did you play in the All-Star Game? At that point, you don’t get to say: “Well, I shoulda been there in 2015.” They should have — and they aren’t.
So there you go. It’s either let Hurricanes fans know their team is part of the NHL, or cost Max Pacioretty his shot at the Hall of Fame. Those are the stakes, apparently.