The final cannon shot echoed through Nationwide Arena in Columbus. The 2015 NHL All-Star Game had concluded, a January afternoon of nearly unwatchable hockey, despite 29 goals between “Team Toews” and “Team Foligno."
Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHLPA, and John Collins, COO of the National Hockey League, met in Columbus and had a conversation about the event. What worked. What didn’t. What really didn’t.
Once the event tanked in the ratings, the seeds of that conversation took full bloom in an ongoing exchange of ideas between the players, the league and the game’s television partners.
“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.”
That sentiment was echoed by Tom Cigarran, owner of the Nashville Predators, who would host the next NHL All-Star Game in January 2016. The Predators have 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.
“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.”
According to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, speaking with the Predators’ website, a 3-on-3 tournament format was one of the initial thoughts the NHL had regarding a format change. There was just one problem: No one knew if the 3-on-3, which had been implemented as a new overtime format this season, was going to be successful or not.
“When we drew this up originally, we really didn’t have a whole lot of experience with 3-on-3 and even when we were considering it as an alternative for regular-season overtime, we really didn’t know what it would look like,” Daly said. “I would say the first month and a half of the season, it’s been a smashing success; it’s been some of the most compelling segments of the games.”
The NHL pushed the NHLPA on the format change; last Friday, the players signed off on the one-year All-Star format experiment, with some reservations.
“I’ve watched quite a few 3-on-3s this year. You get a mixed bag,” said Schneider. “A majority of guys seem happy with it, and it was worth trying.”
WHY THE OLD FORMAT WAS SCRAPPED
The last three NHL All-Star Games saw two team captains, and their assistant captains, selecting rosters from a pool of players in an All-Star Fantasy Draft on Friday, before they competed in the skills competition on Saturday and the traditional 5-on-5 game on Sunday.
The draft night was … well-lubricated. Players were candid. Some were a wee tipsy. While the fans ate up the unpredictable vibe, it wasn’t exactly the kind of advertisement for the game the NHL wanted.
Frankly, it wasn’t something the players enjoyed either.
“I think the concept was neat. In the beginning,” said Schneider. “But it was a couple things: Players generally feel uncomfortable. They felt like they had to entertain. It’s not really what they do, and they felt uncomfortable out there.
“But the second thing was that there was always a concern about the bottom picks, you know? We got our best guys in the world up there, and someone’s always going to get embarrassed, no matter what you do for them. And at the end of the day, he’s an all-star. He’s one of the best players in the game. Why would we want to do this? It’s tough to reconcile with some of the players.”
Schneider said being an all-star had, in some ways, lost its luster for the players. The fantasy draft was awkward. The game itself wasn’t exactly a thrill. Over the years, players looked at it more as a chore than an honor to be selected as an all-star.
So Friday night has been freed up for friends and family – although there will be some sort of television “Meet The All-Stars” event on Sportsnet and NBC Sports Network whose format has yet to be determined. Saturday night remains the skills competition, which the players universally enjoy. And then Sunday will be the revamped All-Star Game.
“We’re appealing to the players and making a change because we weren’t happy, they weren’t happy and the fans weren’t happy,” said Poile.
So will 3-on-3 make everyone happy?
THE TIMING IS RIGHT?
The NHL All-Star Game has never exactly been what you’d call “good hockey.” It has its moments of amazing skills and fun odd-couplings of players that excel on a line together. But as a game, it’s never been the best advertisement for the sport.
Which brings us to the new format. What if 3-on-3 hockey, which can be kinetic and chaotic in a 5-minute overtime, is played as deliberately as All-Star Games are typically played? Do players really want to compete in 40 minutes of 3-on-3, as will the two teams that advance to the final?
Poile says when you look inside the numbers, it’s not the bag skate it might seem to be.
“When you break it down, you have three different sets of three players. You divide that into a 20-minute period, that’s 6-and-a-half minutes each. So the most anyone would play, if you play two games, would be 13 minutes each. And that’s reasonable,” said the Predators general manager.
Schneider agreed that the 20-minute mini-games would encourage the players to compete hard.
“The hope is that with the length of the games, the shortness of the games, with three full lines rolling, we can keep the pace up for the 20 minutes. That’s the hope. Short games, allowing guys to play at a higher tempo,” he said.
Plus, there’s $1 million on the line for the winning team. “Oh yeah. There’s no question [that helps],” said Schneider.
But that’s not the only motivation in playing 3-on-3. There’s also the fact that it’s a format that demands full engagement from the players.
“With so much ice out there, you can really get embarrassed easily. In a 5-on-5 game, guys can hide out there, blend in. But for sheer pride, these guys aren’t going to want to get beat like that,” said Schneider.
So the new format will be given a shot in Nashville, even if for just one season. Poile said it’s worth a shot, given what he believes the All-Star Game means to the League, the players and the fans.
“The All-Star Game is one of the most viewed events that we have. Why wouldn’t you want to represent your sport, and try to sell it?” he said.
“It’s worth a try. The other format was probably turning off more fans than creating them.”
Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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