This Sunday, 17,113 fans will cram Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena to attend the All-Star Game. One million viewers, more or less, will watch on NBC Sports. Heavyweight brands such as Honda, Gatorade, and Discover have considered it worthwhile to invest their marketing dollars to sponsor segments of the skills competition.
For those reasons, it is mandatory for the NHL to hold the All-Star Game. It is an excuse to make money. Nobody will say no to hockey-related revenue, not with issues such as the Canadian exchange rate and escrow taking a hammer to clubs’ budgets and players’ checkbooks.
In a perfect world, however, the All-Star Game would go away. It is a necessary but unfortunate blight on the sport, primarily because it doesn’t resemble hockey in the slightest.
Hockey’s most important element is conflict, which manifests in races, puck battles, and checks. It is in nobody’s interest to introduce conflict to Sunday’s exhibition.
That hockey and the All-Star Game have nothing in common, however, does not mean the event has to be a bomb. The All-Star Game’s critical shortcoming is that its stewards take it far too seriously. If you argue to the contrary, the John Scott debacle is the one and only necessary piece of evidence. The Coyotes and the NHL tried to persuade Scott to decline his invitation. That is embarrassing.
The game is a spectacle. It should be treated as such, in the following manner:
■ Players should wear their amateur jerseys. The league has to sell All-Star apparel. So for two periods, the players should pull on the uniforms that will be on sale at ludicrous prices. But in the third period, they should switch to their junior or college jerseys. It would be an opportunity to tell the stories of lesser-known but important teams and programs. It would give the game some color and personality.
■ Switch positions. Tell me fans wouldn’t be buzzing about watching Tyler Seguin play defense, Vladimir Tarasenko strap on goaltending gear, or Ben Bishop trying to dangle end to end. Yes, the traditionalists would bellow about using players out of position being a mockery of the game. That’s the point. It would be a smile to watch Tarasenko, usually the one humiliating goalies, try to keep the puck out of the net.
■ Leave the coaches at home. Gerard Gallant, Lindy Ruff, Darryl Sutter, and Barry Trotz will be in Nashville, having led their teams to the highest points percentage in their respective divisions by Jan. 9, the halfway point of the season. The coaches should have been rewarded by getting free Caribbean vacations instead. Aside from equipment managers, who have the toughest jobs in the league, nobody works harder than coaches. Even before the wheels are up on their charters after a road game, the coaches are cranking away on their laptops. They spend more time staring at screens than J.J. Abrams. Instead of running these poor guys through a useless weekend, the league should open the bench up to its customers. Imagine a lottery where fans pay for the privilege to stand behind their heroes and call out the lines and pairings. It would be the ultimate fantasy camp. And it would raise a lot of cash.
■ Employ wearable technology. There will be a lot of skating in the three-on-three format. By equipping every player with a tracking device, we could determine who skates the most in the game. The leader gets a free postgame ride to the dressing room on his teammates’ shoulders. The loser has to skate a penalty lap.
■ Host a fashion show. Forty-four of the fittest athletes on the planet will be in Nashville. They should all be given complimentary suits and shoes. Fashion executives would be cross-checking each other in their perfect teeth for the right to dress the players in their stuff. The players would be good sports about walking a runway. Their teammates back home would love it, if only for the extra material they’d have for dressing room carvings.
■ Live music during the game. The All-Star Game should be a party. What’s a party without tunes? There is no shortage of talented musicians in Nashville. They should be jamming for the entire 60 minutes, even when the puck is in play.
■ Make the skills competition as wacky as possible. Some really fast guys can peel around the rink really fast. So what? Think they could do the same dressed as politicians? One of the goofiest intermission gags in the league is in Ottawa, featuring the skating prime ministers. Four skaters wearing the oversized likenesses of Wilfrid Laurier, John A. Macdonald, Robert Borden, and William Lyon Mackenzie King race around the rink. Of course, they’re free to check, hold, and trip each other. It’s a riot.
■ Props are welcome. The KHL All-Star Game took place on Jan. 23. This would have gone unnoticed without Linus Omark’s creativity. During a shootout contest, the ex-NHLer lit his stick on fire. Last year, the NHL rejected Johnny Gaudreau’s request to do the same. Boo. Some suggestions: a glowing stick for Steven Stamkos, boxing gloves for Scott, a bow and quiver for P.K. Subban, and a rubber ducky for Seguin.
■ Live tweeting by Roberto Luongo. The Panthers goalie has mastered the medium via his @strombone1 account. Luongo would not disappoint with his posts from the bench. Or even when he’s in the net.
Julien believes it’s a useful tool
Bruins coach Claude Julien still believes the offside challenge is a good tool to have in his pocket. In Julien’s opinion, the first-year rule is valuable because of how critical goals are in today’s offense-challenged league.
“I think it’s a great move on the league’s part to give those challenges,” Julien said on Tuesday, “because we’re trying to get the right calls.”
A day earlier, however, Julien was on the wrong end of a coach’s challenge.
Prior to Flyer Wayne Simmonds’s tying goal in the third period, the Bruins thought Michael Del Zotto might have gone offside before Jakub Voracek carried the puck over the offensive blue line. Neither Brian Murphy nor Jonny Murray, the linesmen, blew the play dead. Julien decided to challenge the goal after video showed it might have been in question.
But after the linesmen studied the replay, they decided the video was not definitive enough to determine that Del Zotto had gone offside.
According to Rule 78.7, if the review is not conclusive and/or there is any doubt as to whether the on-ice call was correct, the original ruling must be confirmed. Naturally, Julien disagreed.
“I still can’t see why that isn’t offside,” Julien said. “I wasn’t happy after the game because of not only that, I lost my timeout and right at the end of the game, there’s another real obvious offside they had a scoring chance on. I couldn’t challenge that. So it’s important to get it right.”
Unless the league addresses this situation, there will be more coaches like Julien who will be disgruntled with the process.
First, the nature of the call will lead to inconclusive reviews. The linesmen have an impossible job to do — to judge whether some of the world’s fastest skaters cross a line before a 3-inch-wide disc, which is also in motion.
The linesmen almost always get it right. There are no big-time goofs, the kind that lead to conclusive reviews. The plays they miss are minuscule, the ones that do not conclusively appear on video. Arriving at a conclusive review is hard given the nature of the play in question.
Second, it is laughable that the linesmen are reviewing these plays on tablets. All they need to do is look up at just about every scoreboard in the league. They are bigger than a house. The screens are sharp enough to play Hollywood premieres. You could identify each tooth missing from Mark Borowiecki’s mouth.
Third, it is human nature to hesitate owning up to a mistake. Linesmen are paid to get the call right in real time. They should not be the ones reviewing the plays they called. They might all be upstanding and virtuous employees. But somebody else — the referees, an officiating supervisor, or a detached set of eyes in Toronto — should be reviewing the calls.
Hockey, like its players say, is a game of mistakes. The officials should be allowed to make them too.
Bruins’ system difficult to grasp
The Bruins’ primary need before the Feb. 29 trade deadline is on defense. Like a lot of teams, the Bruins want to add a top-four defenseman. It’s easier said than done, especially considering the system an addition would be asked to master promptly.
Claude Julien and assistant Doug Houda, who’s in charge of the defense, teach their charges to do things that don’t come naturally. Black and Gold defensemen have to hold their ground. They’re usually stationed inside the dots. They wait for their forwards to steer puck carriers their way.
For some defensemen, this approach runs counter to everything they’ve been taught. In other systems, they’re told to take away time and space up the ice. They’re allowed to roam to seal off plays, throw big hits, and support the attack. Other coaches want their defensemen to front shots, fill shooting lanes, and block pucks. Julien and Houda instruct their defensemen to box out.
It can be an alien experience for newbies. Consider the in-season acquisitions during Julien’s time behind the bench: Shane Hnidy, Steve Montador, Steven Kampfer, Dennis Seidenberg, Tomas Kaberle, Mike Mottau, Greg Zanon, Wade Redden, and Andrej Meszaros. It’s not exactly a hit list of impact defensemen. Of the group, Hnidy and Seidenberg were the two who adjusted best to the Bruins. Neither is considered a mobile, puck-moving defenseman, the qualities the Bruins would prefer.
General manager Don Sweeney remains on the hunt for blue-line help. Prices are high. Assuming costs remain elevated, an upgrade before the draft would make more sense economically. That’s the time when amateur scouts are begging for more picks. GMs have yet to allocate all their cap dollars toward the upcoming season. Big names are easier to trade.
Defensemen who get time in training camp and in the early months to grasp Julien’s system become more valuable later in the season. Even then, it’s not easy to get.
Bowman isn’t going anywhere
On Tuesday, the Blackhawks signed GM Stan Bowman to an extension through 2021. The three-time Stanley Cup winner has pulled off the impossible — sustaining a championship-level roster while keeping his club cap compliant. He has built a good relationship with Joel Quenneville, one of the most innovative coaches in the league. Bowman and his staff have identified and rolled in inexpensive players such as Artemi Panarin, Teuvo Teravainen, and Scott Darling to complement his big-ticket studs. Perhaps Bowman’s smartest move has been to invest money and term in the right core players: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, their three-time ring winners. “I think continuity is an important thing,” Bowman told Chicago reporters. “We’ve talked about that a lot. Within our team as well, players on the ice. There have been some changing players here and there. But I think we’ve tried to identify the players that are most integral to our team’s success. We want to make sure they’re going to be with us.”
Career development coach
Over his stops at Clarkson, Bowling Green, and Boston College, Jerry York has coached many players. Sixty-five of those Yorkians made it to pro hockey: two from Clarkson, 25 from Bowling Green, and 38 from BC. Among the group, there is one current GM (Brian MacLellan), two former GMs (Dave Taylor, George McPhee), and one coach (Dan Bylsma). That so many of his players went on to bigger and better things says more about York than notching his 1,000th victory. York has turned BC not just into a college hockey powerhouse, but a factory producing good people. If that’s not the definition of a Hall of Fame builder, I don’t know what is.
Thornton still making his points
Joe Thornton cracked the 1,300-point plateau on Wednesday by assisting on Joe Pavelski’s five-on-three goal. Thornton became the 33d NHL player to reach the milestone. The ex-Bruin’s legs aren’t as active as they once were. But his soft hands, puck-protection ability, and creativity have made him one of the most dangerous and consistent players of his generation. Thornton is under contract through 2017. If he stays healthy, he could bust through the 1,400-point threshold, which would put him among the top 20 scorers ever.
Senators worth watching
Ottawa is currently out of the playoff picture. But GM Bryan Murray is not close to being a seller, not when he watched over a club that caught fire last year, swatted the Bruins out of the way, and roared into the playoffs. Either way, Murray has several important players reaching restricted status this summer: Mike Hoffman, Cody Ceci, and Patrick Wiercioch being the three most important pieces. The Senators will clear $4.4 million in salary, according to www.generalfanager.com, by saying goodbye to longtime employees Chris Phillips and Chris Neil. But the small-market Senators would still prefer to have more breathing room to re-up Hoffman, who has a team-high 22 goals. Jared Cowen has one year remaining at a hefty salary of $4.5 million.
The selling should commence in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs’ mandate is to turn some of their dead-end roster players into picks and prospects. Of their pending UFAs, P.A. Parenteau, Shawn Matthias, and Daniel Winnik will bring back the highest return. James Reimer is also scheduled to be unrestricted on July 1. But Reimer is proving that when healthy, he can be a cornerstone piece. It will not be easy for GM Lou Lamoriello to find a taker for Jonathan Bernier, who is under contract through 2017 . . . Dallas entered the All-Star break with the second-best record in the West and the conference’s top goal differential (plus-29). But one Western Conference scout is more scared about Los Angeles than Dallas. The belief is that the Kings’ experience, ruggedness, and ability to clamp down on defense will be tougher to play in the postseason than Dallas’s go-go style . . . Seth Jones has played in 10 games for the Blue Jackets since being traded by the Predators and is averaging 24:14 of ice time in Columbus compared with 19:38 in Nashville. The right-shot defenseman looks dynamite. It’s been a disastrous season for the Blue Jackets. But they’ve got a blue-line superstar in Jones. He’ll be worth every cent of the megabucks raise he’ll earn this summer. With Jones and Ryan Murray up for new deals, Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen will target the deadline as his first segment for shedding salary. As scary as the three remaining seasons on Scott Hartnell’s contract are, the left wing would be a good addition for a contender.
Quite a stretch
The longest winning streak in the NHL last season was eight games. This season, there have been five winning streaks of at least nine games, and it all started with the Canadiens on Opening Night. From that date (Oct. 7) until the recent end of the Blackhawks’ 12- game winning streak, there was just a four-week stretch during the season when a team wasn’t involved in a winning streak of at least nine games.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.