This year's Winter Classic was held in Philadelphia. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
There’s a lot to like about the NHL’s massively successful Winter Classic experiment. There’s not as much to like about the NHL’s All-Star Game weekend. But if they were melded together into a single event that takes the best from both concepts, there’d be much more to like.
Let’s be clear – it’s not just the NHL All-Star Game that has become an undeniable anachronism. All pro sports all-star games are relics of a bygone era when there were no satellite TV and Internet options by which to watch your favorite athletes who don’t play in your city. Now (with the possible exception of baseball), they are barely comparable facsimiles of the sports they represent, nuisances to physically and mentally worn-down superstars who don’t put in one-100th of the effort they would in an actual competitive situation, corporate schmoozapaloozas where the most fun that’s had takes place at the local danceterias and hotel bars.
(And don’t get me started on the cockamamie vote-in process that exists only to soothe the delicate feelings of fans in the All-Star Game’s host city. It makes a mockery of a game that could be mocked anyway.)
So it isn’t a surprise to see the Winter Classic already usurp the NHL All-Star Game in popularity just five years after its inception. The WC has become more of a must-watch event than the All-Star Game ever could be, but it has its problems, too.
Biggest among them is the issue of holding a regular season game on ice that, to be kind, has all the consistency of partially dried cement. It’s not ideal to keep players from being injured and just as importantly, with the standings races closer than ever, the points awarded in that game could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. It would be a serious shame if one team made the playoffs because it got a fortunate bounce or two on a subpar playing surface. And for the most part, we’ve seen the same eastern-based teams (i.e. the Flyers and Penguins) play twice already.
But imagine an All-Star Game played on that outdoor ice, on or near New Year’s Day. In such a scenario, players could have far more fun, knowing there is nothing of consequence at stake. The risk of injury on bad ice would plummet. And fans worldwide would be able to see the best of the league’s talent together in an environment in which they’ll rarely, if ever, be able to see them again.
When I mentioned this idea on Twitter, the first question many asked was what would become of the equally ingenious and entertaining 24/7 HBO series that follows around both Winter Classic teams in the lead-up to and completion of the event. The answer is relatively simple: instead of having high-quality cameras capturing every movement of two teams for a few weeks, HBO could focus its attention on the players named to the All-Star Game, thus helping the NHL promote all its elite talents in all markets.
Alternately, the NHL could ask HBO to train its cameras on a team in the playoff race late in the regular-season and air the final product just before the playoffs begin. Wouldn’t that be more inherently dramatic than watching two teams gear up for a game that might never be played due to weather conditions? I say, yes. No, I say hell, yes.
Another complaint was that, under my suggestion, fans in warm-weather NHL cities wouldn’t get to host an All-Star Game/Winter Classic any longer. The answer to that is simple: too bad, so sad. Warm weather cities get warm weather and cold-weather cities get the WC/ASG. That’s a more-than-fair tradeoff for warm weather cities.
Now, that isn’t to say my suggestion will be adopted in the near or far future. The NHL is fortunate to have stumbled upon another corporate cash cow like the Winter Classic, but it’s unlikely to discard the All-Star Game’s positive effect on hockey-related revenue simply because the WC has added to the league’s bottom line.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. The league could transfer the All-Star Game break to the New Year’s Day stretch and use the traditional late January break to make the schedule less compact and punishing. It could restore each of its crucial regular season games to being contested in a standard rink setting. It could take the best of both events and turn them into one supernova spectacle.
In many ways, the artifice of the All-Star Game set against the artificial backdrop of the Winter Classic would represent perfect synchronicity. It’s certainly an improvement on the current system.
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