Two decades ago this month, the 1991 NHL All-Star Game took place at one of the most hallowed Cathedrals in the game of hockey, Chicago Stadium. The Gray Lady on Madison. Home to my beloved Chicago Blackhawks. Chris Chelios started on the blue line and wore an "A". Steve Larmer got the nod, and young Jeremy Roenick made his debut.
But the fans cheered loudest for the Blackhawk watching from the stands that day, the goaltender who would go on to win the Vezina and Jennings trophy that season—Ed Belfour. Signs jeering Cambpell coach John Muckler or simply asking "Where's Eddie?", chants of "Eddie! Eddie!" and razzing Edmonton goalie Bill Ranford, Muckler's selection and his own player, peppered the day's pleasantries.
The 1991 contest is remembered not only because it was the last to be played in Chicago Stadium or Vincent Damphousse's four-goal MVP effort that included a natural hat trick, or the patriotic showing of support for the troops in the Persian Gulf, but because of the puzzling All-Star selections and omissions by both Campbell and Wales.
At that time only two goaltenders were chosen were allowed for each side, and John Muckler of Edmonton, behind the Campbell Conference bench that day chose his own goaltender, Bill Ranford over the league's top goaltender and hometown star, Ed Belfour. Coming off a Conn Smythe-winning performance and backstopping the Oilers to a Stanley Cup in 1990, Ranford was having a respectable season, but Belfour was clearly better by all measures.
Similarly, Wales Conference coach Mike Milbury of Boston selected his own enforcer Chris Nilan and shutdown forward Brian Skrudland over legend Guy Lafleur and New Jersey standout Kirk Muller. While neither Nilan nor Skrudland saw action in the game due to injuries, Lafleur was rightfully given the honor, but Muller stayed home.
With the pageantry of each season's halfway point and the televised no-contact morning skate of a game played by its biggest stars the perennial debate blooms again—who is worthy of an All-Star selection and who isn't?
Taking into account the fan vote for starting honors at the All-Star Game and enhanced media coverage where the game has been easier to follow than ever, the measure of "star" has become quite ambiguous. It used to be that to be a star, one had to be a statistically superior player within that season. But "star" can mean respected veteran, sentimental favorite, this season's "it" player, or an otherwise marketable personality.
What measure of time should be followed? Should the All-Star selection be made on the merits of the last half of the season and playoffs or just from October until now?
Further complicating the decision is that numbers don't tell the whole story of a player's value. You've got your puck-moving defensemen and you've got your stay at home defensemen, and it takes one of each for an effective pairing. There are playmakers and there are goal scorers, shutdown lines and scoring lines.
Players on teams in major markets or who otherwise benefit from greater media exposure also have an unfair advantage. Look at who the fans picked as the starting six—four from Gary Bettman's favorite team and two from the team who won the Cup last season, also with the highest ratings and ticket sales in the US. Is Marc-Andre Fleury more deserving of top honors than Tim Thomas?
Duncan Keith isn't even the best defenseman on his own team this season, and that teammate will be watching the game from home. Keith did, however, take home the Norris Trophy this summer and had a hell of a spring. Wisecracking party boy Patrick Kane made the All-Star cut in spite of a slow start, but Danny Briere—a player comparable to Kane and having a better season—only made it on a last minute revision and a little bit of politicking.
Players like Henrik Zetterberg and Jarome Iginla declined for various reasons, and in some ways the All-Star Game becomes the best collection of players available to play on that given weekend, although there is no shortage of deserving players staying home in favor of more popular players getting the honor.
The game remains for us, the fans, and as a showcase to the game that we love. It's not a perfect system, but the NHL remains the only league with the chutzpa to shake up the tired Conference vs. Conference format—Cup winners vs. All-Stars, North America vs. World, and East vs. West at a time when the league was divided by Campbell and Wales. This format proves to be the most interesting yet. But unless one is a sponsor or an agent negotiating player contracts, All-Star appearances and the game itself are largely trivial. Players still consider it an honor or at least say so, but the fan exhibition of the game has long paled in comparison to the anticipation of the Super Skills Competition. Yet fear not, fans—since 1998 we've had a true All-Star contest to look forward to. It lasts two weeks, but you have to wait another three years for the next one.