From fantasy to reality, All-Star Game had buzz

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

RALEIGH, N.C. – If anyone thought the Fantasy Draft would transform the NHL All-Star Game into a heated, competitive, I’ll-show-you affair, that was just, well, a fantasy. Just because the captains picked the teams, taking some players higher than others, didn’t bruise egos or manufacture motivation to win.

The reality is that this is still the All-Star Game. No matter the format – East vs. West, North America vs. the World, pretend pond hockey – there is going to be lots of skill but little speed, little intensity and no hitting, and no one is going to pay too much attention to winning.

After the Chicago BlackhawksPatrick Sharp(notes) received the MVP award Sunday for his one-goal, three-point performance in Team Staal’s 11-10 loss to Team Lidstrom, he was asked if he would trade the trophy for a victory.

“Uh,” he said, “I thought we won the game.”

But the real intrigue of the All-Star Game for the fans and the players is about the recognition of being here, not the results of playing here. That’s why fans howl about ballot-stuffing and snubbing when the starters and reserves are announced each year. That’s why Sharp said of being left off the ballot this season: “I guess I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bothered by it.” That’s why Sharp’s parents, after their flight was canceled out of Newark, N.J., jumped in a minivan and drove all night to make it to Raleigh.

And the real value of the event for the league is about sponsorships and marketing. That’s why it’s an All-Star Weekend, not only an All-Star Game, with a Fan Fair and a SuperSkills competition and parties and meet-and-greets.

Look at it that way, and the new format – the brainchild of Brendan Shanahan(notes), an all-star player turned NHL executive – was a success. Maybe the Fantasy Draft turned out to be better than the All-Star Game itself, but it created a bigger all-star buzz than the league has had in a long time. Isn’t that alone better than what the NHL had before?

“I’m so impressed with how the players handled themselves the entire weekend,” Shanahan wrote in an email shortly after the game Sunday. “They were good sports and continue to show the fans more and more of their personalities. We truly have the best athletes in the world.”

From a pure hockey perspective, the All-Star Game was starting to seem more trouble than it was worth. It wasn’t entertaining. It didn’t mean anything. The Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game, had become more of a marquee event.

The last time the NHL held the All-Star Game, in Montreal in 2009, the Detroit Red WingsPavel Datsyuk(notes) and Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) declined to come and the league held them out of their next regular-season game.

“I just kept saying, ‘Shanny, we’ve got to get rid of the All-Star Game,’ ” laughed Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of hockey operations. “I said, ‘It’s tough to get players to come.’ I said, ‘They’re in a busy, hard season. Their coaches don’t want them to come because they like to have rest because they’ve got a real challenge coming up after the break.’…

“So I said, ‘Shanny, we’ve got to find a better way to do this.’ ”

Getting rid of the All-Star Game wasn’t really an option. From a pure business perspective, it was worth the trouble. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman noted that all of the SuperSkills events had a sponsor this season – in other words, companies were paying to be associated with things like a fastest-skater race – and he pointed out the effect the event can have in a place like Raleigh.

“Have you been downtown? Have you seen the buzz?” Bettman said. “This is a big deal wherever it is, and it’s not supposed to be a playoff game or a regular-season game. It’s supposed to be a weekend for the NHL family in its broadest sense and our fans and our all-star players to get together to celebrate the sport and to have fun.”

But Bettman was open to finding a better way to do this, in an era when the league has been trying new things to grow the game, like the Winter Classic and the all-access “24/7” series on HBO. When Shanahan, the league’s vice-president of hockey and business development, came to his office with an idea, he didn’t brush it off despite a tight timeframe.

“I said, ‘Go talk to the departments to see if we can implement it,’ ” Bettman said. “And most departments said, ‘You know, it’s only four months away. Are you nuts?’ ”

Bettman pointed out that the NHL already was planning for All-Star Weekend. The dates were set. The location was set. The logistics were already being planned. All they were adding was a Friday night TV show and changing how they were organizing the teams. He told his staff members that they could deal with those issues.

“I said, ‘Brendan has a good idea. Let’s not wait. Let’s do it,’ ” Bettman said.

By having the all-stars choose the captains and the captains choose the teams, Shanahan hoped to bring out the pickup-game competitiveness players show when they play ping pong in the dressing room, when they kick around a soccer ball in the hallway to warm up. He hoped to engage the players by giving them more control. He hoped everyone would keep in mind that this was not sacred, not for the Stanley Cup.

The lead-up to the game became more interesting. There were mock drafts. People wondered if the Vancouver Canucks’ outstanding twins – Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes) – would be split up for the first time in their lives, and they were. They wondered who would be taken last, and it turned out to be the Toronto Maple LeafsPhil Kessel(notes), who handled it well.

But the game itself?

Well, the draft made the lineups equal. The teams were remarkably similar from average height (both were 6-1) to total goals (2,351 for Team Staal to 2,317 for Team Lidstrom) to total payroll ($102.2 million for Team Staal, $102.6 million for Team Lidstrom). And it ended up being a one-goal game, with the goalie pulled and six skaters scrambling for the equalizer at the end.

Otherwise, it was a typical All-Star Game, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“It’s hard,” the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Martin St. Louis(notes) said. “It’s a fine line. All these guys play key roles on their teams, are top players in the league. The last thing you want to do is get hurt going down the stretch.”

Asked if the draft format made a big difference, the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane(notes) said: “Nah, but it was cool. Everyone really enjoyed it. It was something different.”