Commentary

Is it time to bring tennis balls and sack races to the All-Star Game?

The All-Star Game rosters were named this week, and the hockey community was atwitter with excitement. But, seriously, how does the NHL make the All-Star Game an event? Our boys debate.

Updated: January 11, 2008, 12:10 PM ET
By Scott Burnside and Damien Cox | ESPN.com

Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!

This week's topic: The rosters were named this week for this season's All-Star Game, which will be held Jan. 27 in Atlanta. But really, who cares? How can the NHL make the All-Star Game relevant and fun again?

Scott: Hello, Damien. How are things on the West Coast? I see the Leafs don't much like the weather out there, either. But you must be pumped about the All-Star Game. Or not.

Damien: You know, being an Eastern Conference guy now after years of following the Maple Leafs when they were in the West, it's weird to come back to L.A. for a regular-season game. The Leafs haven't been out here since before the lockout, and the last time I was here was for -- you guessed it -- the NHL All-Star Game. Don't remember much about it, and sad to say, I won't be attending this year either. Last one I enjoyed was in Denver, and while it's a good place to chat with the great players of the sport, it's become a corporate love-in and a bit of a bore, frankly.

Scott: I, too, was at that game in Denver where, if memory serves, it was so exciting Pavel Bure left in the third period and was already at the airport heading home to Florida by the time reporters filed into the dressing room. And I have no problem with corporate love-ins and schmoozing the folks who foot the bill for the league, but maybe they should come up with a different name than "All-Star," because it's frankly more than a bit misleading.

Damien: The truly unfortunate part for the league is that it thought it had something when it introduced the Young Guns game. Instead, that has become even worse than the All-Star Game; the youngsters care even less. So what's going to make it a worthwhile showdown in Georgia?

Scott: Well, I think the key is what the folks in Atlanta are planning to do, take the emphasis away from the game, which isn't like a game so much as an extended free-skating exhibition with sticks and pucks, and dress up the All-Star weekend with more skills and stuff like that. Guys don't get hurt, in general, trying to smash up Styrofoam targets or race around pylons (no snide comments about the Leafs' defense needed) but they sure as heck don't want to go down in the actual game, so why not treat fans to as much skills stuff as possible and call it a day?

Damien: You might be right. They've tried to bribe them with cash before, but they're all too rich now, and it's unfair to ask them to put their bodies on the line. Do you think, like baseball, it would be worthwhile to give home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup finals to the conference that wins the All-Star Game? Would that provide for a better show, or is that not what fans are looking for?

Scott: I think that would make a mockery of the regular season to hand over what is a significant playoff perk to a team based on the All-Star Game. Can you imagine if Tampa Bay ended up having to play Game 7 in 2004 in Calgary because Martin Brodeur decided to take off All-Star weekend? (I don't know that he did, but just imagine.) Maybe Roberto Luongo wouldn't have been so quick to bail out on this year's event if it really mattered, but I think that is lending false importance to what is clearly an unimportant event. It's a dilemma for the league, though. Plus, it drives me crazy that the league's hockey ops folks feel duty-bound to put someone from each team on the respective conference teams. Jason Arnott, named to the West, is 44th in league scoring. That'll have the folks in Atlanta in a frenzy.

[+] EnlargeNHL All Star
Dave Sandford/Getty Images for NHLShould players such as Martin Havlat, left, and Marian Hossa continue to come to the cheesefest known as the All-Star Game?

Damien: I would love to see, at least once, a game like the way it used to be. Is it completely crazy to think the Anaheim Ducks could take on the best of the rest of the league in Atlanta that weekend and it wouldn't create some kind of buzz? Might be a no-hitter, but it would be fun to watch, I'd bet.

Scott: Hey, if it was good enough for the old NHL back in the day, then why not now? But it doesn't fit the league's desire to be all things to all sponsors, so even though there would be a buzz and it would be a great nod to the notion of "team" that guys like George Parros and Brad May and Joe DiPenta got a chance to take part in an All-Star weekend, it'll never happen. It's somehow more important that Jason Arnott, or last year's All-Stars, Yanic Perreault and Bill Guerin, are on hand. Why? Good question.

Damien: Not to rehash one of our old arguments -- the folks at Paul's in Anaheim say hello, by the way -- but it sure seems to me the format used for the Winter Classic would fit the All-Star Game perfectly, particularly if they went four-on-four.

Scott: What format is that? Playing in 2 inches of snow with holes all over the place? But seriously, I don't mind the All-Star event. It is a good chance to see some of the game's greats, past and present. And the NHL does a nice job of packaging it and bringing in world-class players. Last year in Dallas, it was fascinating to hear Mark Messier talk about Sidney Crosby and the qualities of leadership. No matter that he was hawking his cold medicine. It was a treat. So if you had to write in a couple of your own All-Stars this season, who would you put on the squad? Never mind that you're not going to bother to come to Atlanta, regardless. And no, I'm not hurt you're not coming.

Damien: See, now that would make a good All-Star Game. I wouldn't let anyone play who I thought might give anything less than, oh, 60 percent at least. So I want to see underrated Daymond Langkow and I want to see a talented young player like Mike Green. You know, something different.

Scott: How about Ty Conklin? The guy was 8-0 with a .941 save percentage, not bad for a player whose career was as viable as yesterday's newspaper at the start of the season. How about, for fun, Sean Avery and let's say Darcy Tucker or Jason Blake? OK, maybe not, but it'd be nice to see a guy like Mike Komisarek, who leads the league in blocked shots, or Dustin Brown, who leads the NHL in hits. Guys like that.

Damien: See, now we're getting somewhere, although Conklin could only play if he wears a toque. I think both teams should get a Sedin and Doug Weight should be traded from the West to the East partway through.

[+] EnlargeTy Conklin
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty ImagesTheoretically, Ty Conklin shouldn't have played outdoors without a toque.

Scott: Oh, I'm liking this. They could have a classic scrimmage between periods too, and Bob Clarke could play and sucker-punch Kevin Lowe because, according to Clarke, that's OK. Of course, Clarke would first have to fight Brian Burke for the chance to get at Lowe. Ah, the possibilities are endless. Unlike our time.

Damien: But that's the reality of this, isn't it? We end up kicking goofy ideas around because you're not happy with the current All-Star format or product; I'm not, and I don't think anybody out there is either. Sometimes I just figure they could just kill the idea entirely. Maybe it's an anachronism from another time when players wouldn't have dared showed up and deliver anything less than their best.

Scott: I don't begrudge the league the desire to have an All-Star Game. It's important (for whatever reason) for the league's sponsors and it's miles better than the NFL's version, which absolutely no one watches in person or on television. And I'm sure it's a nice perk for a young player like Paul Stastny who was added to the Western Conference squad, but it has no meaning beyond gathering a bunch of sponsors and players in the same place and calling it an event. In that sense, you can pretty much do whatever you want -- tennis balls, rubber sticks, sack races, whatever, and it'll all be OK because it really, in the end, doesn't matter.

Damien: Well, my goodness, I hope the fans in Atlanta can still get excited about something that doesn't matter. Or will they be distracted by the chase for Pete Carroll for a while?

Scott: Pete Carroll? Is he that big defenseman for the Gwinnett Gladiators? But maybe that's the point: The fans don't really come expecting to see Jarome Iginla take Sidney Crosby hard into the boards. They come because they want to see these players have some fun, show off their wares and maybe, if they're lucky, rub shoulders with these guys they normally see only on television or read about. And maybe that's enough. It had better be.

Damien: Yup, and I can tell you, if my 9-year-old son had a chance to go to the NHL All-Star Game, he'd jump at the opportunity. So maybe we've reached the same conclusion as always; we're cynical and grumpy. Until next week?

Scott: Agreed. Until next week.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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