Saturday, January 26, 2008

The All-Star Game is Fine

There's not really any way around the fact that for a number of years it has been frustrating to be a hockey fan. The NHL saw its on-ice product become significantly less appealing as the trap and clutch-and-grab styles of play becoming increasingly effective and popular, suffered through the first work stoppage to ever cancel an entire season in North America and lost its contract with (and hence its coverage from) ESPN. And to top it off, Gary Bettman is still the commissioner.

These problems have built a culture of negativity around the NHL, where it has become en vouge to criticize the league on everything from the on-ice product to the off-ice management to the rules of the game to the uniforms. To an extent these criticisms are warranted and anyone who thinks the NHL doesn't have significant obstacles in front of it needs to either take of their rose-colored glasses or have their opinion taken again once they're off Bettman's payroll. But at the same time anyone who doesn't believe that the NHL is an exciting, world-class league that is in better shape for the long term financially and in terms of the on-ice product than before the lockout is...well, wrong. But I digress.

This aura of negativity has unsurprisingly extended to the center of the NHL world for this weekend, the All-Star game in Atlanta. Even before All-Star weekend started the chorus of critics ratcheted up with claims the NHL All-Star game is irrelevant, meaningless to casual fans and boring, all because the game itself won't resemble a real NHL game. While I don't disagree with those assertions my overwhelming response is "so, what?"

These "problems" aren't singular to the NHL by any stretch. When is the last time you ever saw an NFL game played without blitzes, a Major League Baseball game where both managers made an effort to get all the players in and were required to change pitchers every three innings or that ended in a tie, or an NBA game that ended in regulation with both teams scoring over 130 points? It doesn't happen anywhere but the Pro Bowl, the Midsummer Classic or the NBA All-Star game and yet you don't hear people within the professional football, baseball or basketball fanbases or journalistic circles fret about the integrity and nature of the all-star game nearly as much as hockey fans and journalists do. The other major sports realize what an all-star game is: a chance to honor the best players in the game, take a break from the grueling regular schedule and a chance to watch the best the game has to offer play in a non-competitive exhibition environment that is, yes, meaningless.*

The NHL and its fans shouldn't expect or hope for anything more for their all-star game, yet they do, a direct result of the other problem with the negative attitude that permeates the NHL these days. Besides making it fashionable to levy criticism at events like the All-Star game before they even occur the culture of negativity has in and of itself created a severe images problems for the NHL. Imagine you're a relatively casual sports fan surfing websites during down times at work and every time you read something about the NHL the league is unconvincingly insisting attendance and television ratings are up and while pundits mock the leagues rule changes, uniforms and leadership while painting a doom-and-gloom picture of the future while wistfully writing about how much better the league was twenty years ago. Does that sound like the kind of league you'd want to check out? If the guys who are paid to write about hockey having nothing but complaints about the NHL, what do people expect the casual sports fan's response to be?

Not that the NHL can silence the pundits, nor should they try to. But the league can control what it discusses and why. To insist at every turn that the league is drawing people to arenas in records numbers or that television ratings are steadily on the rise makes the league seem desperate for approval; desperate to impress and is completely at odds with the image the league had cultivated for years. If this were high school the NHL would have gone from being the kid that not a whole lot of people knew but who everyone thought was a badass to the kid who, yeah I mean he's pretty cool, like, if you get to know him but yeah it's totally weird how, like, he's like always asking about whether or not people like him or not and junk (and why does he always change the way he dresses and stuff, does he think people are going to like, like him more for it or something....?)

Let me say this: I am a hockey fan, no doubt. I played travel hockey as a kid, I still play, I purchased NHL Center ice and a DVR just so I could watch more hockey and I spend hours every week writing about hockey without compensation. But I'm not going to watch the All-Star game.** I don't think people like me a problem for the league any more than people who watch the NFL every week but skip the Pro Bowl are for the NFL.

Simply put, the NHL All-Star game is what it is: a nice little break in the middle of the season where the players can have fun and as fans we might see some dazzling offense and as such, it is fine. But it isn't enough to be a savior for the league or even a legitimate chance to showcase the NHL or its players, so of course the event is going to fail to live up to any expectations people might have that it should be. The league needs to realize this and concentrate their efforts on making the on-ice product as good as possible rather than continually hoping that if they can just nail the presentation in All-Star game/Winter Classic/Opening Night/Crosby vs. Ovechkin/Playoffs or whatever else all their problems will be solved.

*I know the MLB All-Star game decides home field advantage in the World Series. To me that's not really enough to make it important to most people, even those in the Major Leagues. Rather, it's just an embarrassing example of what happens when a league decides it tries to all-star game mean something.
**Okay, the full version is less dramatic. I'll be playing hockey during the All-Star game, but I'm not too upset that I'll miss it and if I weren't playing I'd probably have the game on in the background, but not really watch it.

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