The North American professional sporting world is primarily made up of the so-called “Big Four” leagues—the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League. Still, while the NHL will always have a strong base in Canada, it’s an afterthought for the majority of Americans. The NHL’s attempts to make the game more exciting, such as the incorporation of the shootout, haven’t quite had the impact that the league was looking for south of the 49th parallel.
This changed last week, when the NHL announced a change to the All-Star Game format that has sports aficionados drooling in anticipation. While fans will still have the opportunity to vote in six starters (three forwards, two defencemen, and a goalie), team captains will fill out their lineups by choosing the rest of the two squads in a fantasy-style draft.
By introducing this change, the NHL has come up with an ingenious idea to try and make the perennially lacklustre event exciting. Injecting a schoolyard style draft into the All-Star Game is unprecedented in any of the major sporting leagues. Everyone can relate to the days on the playground when two captains selected players for their team one by one from a pool of eager kids. Seeing professional hockey players do this on national television is going to be a joy to watch.
What may bring an even bigger smile to the faces of those watching is the reaction of the player who is selected last. On the playground nobody wanted to be “that guy.” When the final name was called, the remaining player would join his/her teammates knowing that they truly were an afterthought. “Fine, I guess we’ll take Joey,” the captain would say as little Joey hung his head and moped on over to the rest of his teammates.
As the NHL struggles to compete with other professional sports in North America, I applaud its willingness to take risks and go against the grain. Sometimes these changes work out (eliminating the two line pass rule), while other times they do not (the dreaded shootout). Nevertheless, the NHL has successfully realized that in order to have any chance of increasing its American fan base, it has to spice up its product.
I give further props to the NHL for recognizing the reality of the fan experience in sports today. Fantasy sports and “franchise mode” in video games have become as big a part of sports as actually following the games. There’s an indescribable thrill in assembling a squad of all-stars and seeing them work their magic together on the same team. Now, for the first time, sports fans will see their dreams turn into reality.
The concept of the all-star game in any sporting league has lost a lot of its lustre. Except for the MLB, many fans are uninterested in seeing athletes half-ass their way through a game that has no significance. However, NHL players are fired up about these changes and hopefully that will translate into a better product on the ice. Giving team captains the agency to choose their own team will make players more accountable and ratchet up the competition. I cannot wait to hear the phrase “With the first pick in the 2011 NHL All-Star draft, Alexander Ovechkin selects…”