Given that we are in the midst of the NHL All-Star Weekend, and Mike’s mailbag yesterday highlighting the overall negativity surrounding a New Jersey Devils team that is fighting for a top 5 pick even with a lottery loss, I figured I would jump to some topical NHL talk for the day. Might as well spend a day enjoying the all-stars at their work instead of harping on a team that has not done much right this season.
This weekend is interesting for all-star purposes as the ASG for two different sports will be taking place. Tonight, the NHL will have its all-stars playing, and tomorrow, the NFL will have their Pro Bowl. Before the NHL changed its format and made it a 3-on-3 competition, I would have been hard pressed to say which game was the worse one to watch. Now, there is a clear difference in the quality of what you’re watching.
Before the NHL changed their format for the All-Star Game, there was not a doubt in anyone’s mind that the Skills Competition was the highlight of the weekend. The game, after that, was merely an afterthought. Watching the stars get to showcase their pretty amazing skills across various events and competitions was awesome to see, and it frankly still is. It is something that cannot be discounted. The NFL has also added a skills competition, which happened on Thursday believe it or not, but it seems to me that the NHL has perfected theirs, placing it on primetime on a Friday night, and generating a good stadium crowd to go along with it. Why isn’t the NFL skills competition on the weekend too? I don’t get that.
But if you want to say both have skills competitions, and both are interesting to watch to some degree, I could see that. Watching NFL Pro Bowlers play dodgeball can certainly be entertaining. However, saying that the actual games themselves are similar would be ridiculous. Sadly for the NFL, football as a sport seems to just not be amenable to a quality game for all-stars to showcase themselves. The linemen barely try, no one wants to get hurt so there is no real competition that involves contact, and it is just a way for players in skill positions to show their skills for a few plays. I mean, the game was performing poorly enough in ratings being after the Super Bowl and in Hawaii that they now do it this weekend, before the Super Bowl in hopes to generate more buzz and ratings. I am not sure how successful that has been, but I know I really have no plans to watch the game once again.
The NHL, on the other hand, has hit a pure gold mine with their 3-on-3 mini-tournament. The old ASG, which was just a regular game where players were drafted to one of two teams, was as boring and useless as the Pro Bowl. The players really did not want to play physical hockey, and the game would be super high scoring as defense was not really played at any level. This 3-on-3 play, however? Man is it considerably more exciting. Turning the single game into a three game tournament, it makes it much more interesting. Also, giving each division its own team gives fans a more stable, obvious team to root for. Yes I don’t want to ever root for a player from New York or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or those other teams in the Metropolitan, but that is where the Devils will always be, and they play together for one day, and I do want the fans of other teams to think the Metro is the hardest, best division to play in. So I root for them all, and harder than I would some random team picked by a random Hall of Famer or All-Star.
Furthermore, as a 3-on-3 competition instead of a regular 5-on-5, it brought out the best in the old game and also scraped away the worst parts of it. The only reason to watch the ASG of old was to see some dazzling offense, as not much else was done. In a 3-on-3, offense can still reign king with all of the open ice available. However, defense has also played its way back in with the different format. 3-on-3 hockey does not have the same physicality as 5-on-5, meaning the players are willing to play defense without as much fear of checking and injuries that could relate from aggressive, close quarters hockey. So you have an actual 3-on-3 with players really playing for the most part, like you might see in a real NHL overtime game in the regular season. Yes you could argue that the players’ motivation and thus effort would be higher in overtime, but that there is even any effort now is a serious improvement over the much less effort they were putting in for the old format.
And finally, knowing the players might need a little extra motivation to make it interesting, what does the NHL do? Give the winning team a $1 million prize to dole out among the players. Now they have that added motivation to play some defense and actually try to stop the puck from being scored on their own team.
The result, to me, is an All-Star format worth tuning into now, and one that is enjoyable to watch and take in. Fans love to hate on Gary Bettman and the league, and I do find it enjoyable to hear those boos whenever he comes out, but where the All-Star Weekend is concerned, the league has gotten it right over the last few years with this new format. The Skills Competition is still a highlight, and now the game is as well. Two nights of entertaining hockey with the best there is showing their skills. Contrast that with the Pro Bowl, where many of the best players do not even show up, and the Rams and Patriots won’t even send any considering they’re playing next week. The NFL may be the bigger league of the two, by far, but they have a long way to go if they want to catch the NHL in the quality of their all-star competition.