NHL and NFL All Star Weekend: Football Just Dismal, Hockey Closer But No Cigar

Steve JohnsonContributor IJanuary 31, 2011

Pro Bowl coaches Belichick and Smith
Pro Bowl coaches Belichick and SmithKent Nishimura/Getty Images

Now that the All Star extravaganzas are history, it’s time to sit back and reflect on what the weekend offered as we brace for the onslaught of Super Bowl hype week.

The Pro Bowl was as boring and drama free as always. Even with Terry Bradshaw in the booth offering some personal reflections on his experiences in the league, I found myself nodding off from time to time. The only memorable moment I will take from the so called game is the final TD scored by Cleveland Brown center Alex Mack. He basically intercepted a lateral intended for teammate Dwayne Bowe and rumbled in for a score with seconds left on the clock. It was amusing and revealing to see just how seriously the players were taking the game as I watched the offensive and defensive lines standing around chatting as Matt Cassel dropped back to pass, then everyone watching the play develop. Other than that the game was a colossal bore and the league really needs to come up with something to liven it up somehow.

A skills competition on the Saturday prior to the game may help bring the interest back. The game should also be played after the Super Bowl so all the Pro Bowl players can participate. The anticipation for the Super Bowl definitely puts a damper on a meaningless all-star game if it’s played prior to the championship game.

Understanding the nature of football, an all-star game cannot be played during the season like it is in the NHL, NBA and MLB, so wait until the entire season is played before wrapping it up with the Pro Bowl, otherwise the audience is just not as interested in it.

The NHL all-star weekend is another story. I have always looked forward to their skills competition more so than the actual game since the game itself does not really reflect the intensity and complexity of hockey when it’s played for real. In that respect the NHL all star-game suffers from the same malaise as any all star game does since nobody, not players nor management want to see anyone suffer an injury in what is just an exhibition game. Particularly so in hockey since the all star-game marks the unofficial start of the playoff drive for several teams, so the intensity of the game itself is absent and there is nothing anyone can do about that. There are other things that can be done however.

This year’s format had some good points, but I perceived more false notes than positive and the television coverage can be blamed for some of them.

I have a real problem with the selection process of the all-stars. While realizing the league is trying to get the fans involved in the process, my feeling is the fans are not impartial enough to responsibly select the best of the best. They also are not exposed to several teams not in their time zones.

For example, here in Massachusetts if you do not have the Center Ice hockey package, you will never see a Vancouver Canuck game unless they are playing the Bruins, nor a Calgary or Edmonton game either. If you live in Seattle, your exposure to the Florida Panthers or Carolina Hurricane is almost as limited so the fans across the country are not able to properly evaluate the talent in the league as a whole. The result is what happened this season; four Penguins and two Black Hawks were voted by the fans as the top six all-stars and it became a competition between whose fan base was the more active on-line. It was a disgrace and reflects poorly on the league among those of us who are knowledgeable about hockey. 

Take the voting out of the control of the fans, or minimize their input. I would suggest a system where ballots are given to the players, coaching and management staffs, the media and then the fans. Each group’s vote counts as one equal vote, then count them all and the highest vote getters are your all-stars. That way there is an informed consensus and some input from the fans as well and you will end up with a more representative pool of talent for the all star weekend.

I would have ballots issued for a couple of the skills competitions as well. The fastest skater and the hardest shot I think should be open to “outside” players too. I can think of a number of players not voted to the all-star team who are faster skaters than Michael Grabner and there are a couple shooters who could give Zedeno Chara a good challenge, but we’ll never know since they are not included in the competition. Let the players decide who should be included in the skills competition.

As much as I’m for innovation to keep the fan base interested, the “Fantasy Draft” was a non-starter for me. I can blame Versus for the overly long process and the cheesy production (having a panel analyze the picks every 30 minutes as if it were an entry draft was painful), and the emcee came off as more of a game show host than a moderator of a draft. I understand the thinking behind the idea, make the process more familiar to the millions of fans who participate in fantasy leagues, but it simply didn’t work for me. The whole point of an all-star game is to showcase the talent in the NHL, and to split up successful pairings (the Sedin twins especially) robs the casual viewer of the chemistry that make the players remarkable.

I would urge the league to return to the East versus West format which gives the game a semblance of a rivalry and guarantees the players who have excelled together may remain together for the game. This year’s game for instance could have showcased the Sedins with Ryan Kesler (which is the Canuck first string power play unit) against the Stamkos- St.Louis line and the casual viewer would have a better sense of what makes these players so superb together.

I also had mixed feelings over miking the players. Generally I’m 100 percent for it, but the Versus broadcast crew turned it from an interesting novelty into a distraction for the players.

Having played in goal for over 30 years I know how important focus is, and the broadcast crew kept on asking goaltender Cam Ward questions and engaging him in conversation while the play was in his end. Ward was an excellent sport by responding as he did, but it is distracting and annoying when trying to get in a zone to have people talking to you in your ear and expecting you to do a “color commentary” while the play is in front of you.

Other aspects of having the players miked were a lot of fun and it’s always fascinating to hear them joking and commenting among themselves and the officials. The Kesler exchange with the linesman regarding the 20 dollar offside fine was great, as was hearing Dustin Byfuglien joking with several players on the bench. There was one F bomb that made its way onto the air, but having been involved in sports for most of my life I know that keeping it to only one is a remarkable achievement.

Overall, I was impressed with the good nature shown by all the players during the entire weekend and the skill sets displayed in the various competitions (although I’d eliminate the most creative breakaway event and replace it with a goaltender specific event since I felt the goalies were under-utilized and there already is a shootout event). There were a few hiccups with the radar gun and various cables strewn across the ice, but in total it was much more enjoyable than the Pro Bowl was. The NFL could take a lesson from the NHL in how to showcase its talent in a more creative way and the NHL could take a lesson from the NFL in how to broadcast their event less intrusively.