- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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It's funny sometimes, the things you remember.
Waiting outside the dressing rooms after the 1998 All-Star Game in Vancouver, a group of us interviewed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. The '98 contest was the first time the league -- as a tie-in to its players' participation in the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Japan -- tried the World vs. North America format.
Bettman was more defensive than any of the defensemen in the game. (That wasn't saying much, of course.) He said everyone enjoyed watching North America's 8-7 win, and no matter what format the league used, we'd probably try to find something wrong with it.
At the time, that was true.
At some point in the past 10 years, though, it seems the consensus has become that there's no use grousing about it, because the All-Star Game is a no-contact, no-emotion gimmick -- and it ain't ever going to change.
So because everyone knows what it is, isn't it wasting breath to knock it?
In a league that (again) is meekly accepting coaching strategies that strangle the entertainment value out of the regular season, most seem to have accepted the All-Star Game's role as a reminder that unfettered skills in a noncompetitive environment is largely boring.
It's a vehicle for getting the stars together in a league in which teams from opposing conferences sometimes might as well be based on separate planets. But as a showcase? It falls flat, because this sure isn't going to coax the uninitiated into giving the NHL more of a shot in their sport-viewing regiment.
If the television ratings are awful Sunday night, the response should be: Good.
Clearly, it's about the culture of the game; there was no more theoretical incentive for the All-Star teams of 30 years ago -- when Gilbert Perreault's overtime goal gave the Wales Conference a 3-2 victory over the Campbell Conference in, appropriately enough, Buffalo.
And maybe there's no way to change it. Perhaps, regardless of the way the rosters are structured, the laissez-faire attitude would dominate.
But shouldn't the league at least try? I'm not saying any of these suggestions would work, or even that they're all completely serious. The NHL Players' Association would frown upon some of these. But shouldn't the point be that mere acceptance of what the All-Star Game and All-Star weekend are doesn't have to be automatic?
How about one of the proposals below, or a combination thereof:
• Give the winning conference home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup finals. At best, it would add a tiny emotional edge, even if it's only from the coach behind the bench. A completely contrived way to decide the home ice? So? Even after its disgustingly minor tweak of the scheduling format for next season, the NHL will still have too few interconference games. Therefore using overall records to award home-ice advantage is nearly just as contrived.
• Revert to the pre-expansion tradition of having the defending Stanley Cup champion play the All-Stars. The champs against the league, whether at a preordained site or the champs' own building. Include a financial mechanism to reward an entire roster for not getting a break, and hope that the champs play with cohesion and spirit out of pride and habit -- and that the All-Stars are coaxed into at least playing with some emotion.
• Don't go back to the North America vs. World format. Instead, make it Canada against the World.
• Do it by age group. The league tries this in a very minor way with the YoungStars Game, but that's such a low-profile and more contrived "game" than the All-Star Game; and with many of the best "young stars" in the All-Star Game itself, it serves little useful purpose. It does not do what the league often seems so reluctant to do: truly celebrate the star power of the young players who will be in the spotlight for the next decade, or longer. Make it Vets vs. Kids. Upperclassmen vs. Underclassmen. Seniors vs. Sophomores. Whatever you want to call it, even if that means selling the team names to league sponsors for contributions to charity.
At this point, 17 of the 42 players on this season's All-Star rosters are 30 or older. I'd draw the division artificially low, making it 26 and under, meaning Rick DiPietro would be on the Kids team and Vincent Lecavalier would be on the Vets. Showcase the young talent. Showcase the league's future. And hope this raises the level of competitiveness.
• Make the weekend even more of a hockey jamboree, regardless of where the game is played. Have the defending Memorial Cup champions play a league game -- one that counts in the standings -- in the All-Star arena Sunday morning, or match the teams with the best records in the Quebec, Ontario and Western Leagues (two of the three on a rotating basis) on a cutoff date in a major junior showcase. Because of NCAA fussiness, having similar U.S. college and National Team Development Program participation probably would be impossible, but what the heck, see if there's a way to make it work.
• Try the whole thing outdoors. Maybe not every year, but occasionally.
• Gulp. Rotate the All-Star site among Toronto, Montreal, New York, Detroit, Boston and Chicago. The Original Six. Yes, fans in the latter two cities have lost much of their passion for the NHL, but this would be more a nod to tradition than a salute of the state of the game in those cities.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."