The NHL All-Star Game would be the worst part of the NHL season if the awards show didn’t exist. Both of these events are cringeworthy exercises in presenting the players to the public in a more humanizing way, but as everyone who has watched an NHL player interview knows, NHLers are dull. They’re dull on purpose. The culture of hockey is, for a long list of reasons, one of an insular group that presents a bland face to the world.
Many people who like to start sentences with, “But in the NBA, though...” would like to see more personality in the NHL, and then, naturally, when an NHLer shows who he is, the tune changes to, “Not like that.” My personal approach is to not make icons out of hockey players. Some seem like great people, some seem delightfully unlearned, some are serious in charming ways, some are blank unknowable ciphers, and some seem like they are people I wouldn’t break bread with.
The modern internet is often characterized as a crusade to tear down every public figure, to find reasons why they are unclean or morally suspect, when all they are is a fallible person. I think it looks like that, but what drives that is a dawning realization that people who happen to be good at a sport shouldn’t be raised up to icon status in the first place. A great wrist shot does not make you a great person.
For me, actual hockey games bring the personality I want to see. The “thrill of victory and agony of defeat” is supposed to be the drama and poetry of the game. It is! Hockey is an intensely emotional game. But the NHL wants to sell the players to the public as personas of, and I can’t come up with a better word, worship. Hence the All-Star Game, which seems like kid stuff. We are often told kids love it. Perhaps only a child with no existential sense of the finite amount of time they have on Earth are the only people who can last out the long periods of boredom and the jarringly inane commentary for the occasional bit of fun.
I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking I’m the universal fan. Maybe there is a large enough constituency who actually wants to see players with their helmets off, laughing it up on the bench as they fill the time in the interminable pauses in the action of the skills competition. Even I find their interactions with their children charming. But the game itself is a wasteland made of bad decisions, and an illustration of everything that’s troubling the NHL.
The NHL has a hard time making stars of its young players, of making room for them in these events, but here’s Dylan Larkin again, and whoever is the least bad player on the Coyotes, and we’re calling them stars while Trevor Zegras stays home. The year the Leafs sent Leo Komarov, who took it all in good humour, they should have just passed the spot off to a good team.
When the NHL decided to convert the ASG from a quasi-hockey game that had no one in it to play defence, and no goalies willing to risk injury to try to make saves on superlines to a clutch of three-on-three scrimmages, it seemed like a good plan. But as was likely inevitable, the players — the ones forced to dance for the brand when they’d rather be on the beach — turned it into the dullest version of pretending to play hockey ever conceived.
And this is the crux of it. The players don’t want to dance for the brand. They get some things out of the exercise. They get to see old friends, and chirp old enemies, and they get to show off a little in skills events that aren’t so complex or impossible they make them look foolish. But that’s about it.
There is a report that the NHLPA would like the ASG to be set in a limited number of cities. Those cities all have something in common: they’re fun. Most are hot, have beaches or casinos or nightlife or all three. The NHL is unlikely to do this since doling out the ASG is one way it acknowledges teams who deserve favours. The Montréal Canadiens did such a good job of putting on the first public draft since Covid that a lot of people would like it to be there permanently, in the same way Buffalo is seen as so good at the Combine it will stay there. The awards show is unlikely to move from Vegas any time soon. But the NHL is unlikely to go for locking down the draft. Or for putting the ASG in Miami all the time, which just makes sense, but hinders the making of dollars.
It’s possible if you made the ASG less of a dreary slog of PR for the players, they might actually like it. You might get genuine looks at real personality, not tight smiles and mild irritation with the inane on-ice media. I’m not running the media down, they’re doing what they’re expected to do in the way it’s expected, and they aren’t game show hosts. But it’s so hard to listen to the false bonhomie, the shouted questions the players affect not to hear, the NHL cliché chatbot answers. The whole thing feels like it belongs to an age before television figured out how to bring “unscripted drama” to the public in a way that convinced them the fakery was real. The ASG is genuinely unscripted, but it utterly lacks drama, thrills or agonies.
I don’t think the NHL is going to fix the ASG in a way that would make me want to watch it, but they could make some more efforts to make the players hate it less — recent changes are actually them trying hard to do that. When players will take the one-game suspension for not going, you know it’s a failed concept, and that does happen a lot less. Now we get, “But, ow, my pancreas, I’m going to miss a few days and look at when it is by total coincidence...”
I think the NHL should do the unthinkable and consider if they want to keep trying to sell their players instead of the game. The story out there in the world is that the kids today, not you 20 or 30 somethings, actual kids, just watch the trick shot highlights on their phones and never watch the games. Maybe the game itself — better, faster, stronger and less violent than it has ever been — needs some selling. You’d need to find someone in the NHL who actually loves the modern game. There’s way too many hooked on the 90s executives and loud TV personalities who won’t stop complaining about these kids today and moaning about how great it was when Gritty McManly took that guy’s head clean off that one time.
Okay, that’s my moaning on about the NHL, it’s marketing concepts and the cringey ASG. I hope you scrolled right past it!
The Skills Competition is tonight! Yes it’s Friday night, and the way they keep calling this a weekend event might have misled you.
Sportsnet has the coverage in Canada, and it starts at 7 pm.
The game(s) are tomorrow afternoon. They are set up with division vs division. The two western divisions play at 3 pm and the two eastern at 4 pm. Then, the winners play off. So the whole thing is slated for three hours. (Really)
The game(s) are on the CBC, so therefore free on GEM or on TV, but the skills competition is not.
If you’re into the skills, but find the pace a little daunting for a Friday night, Sportsnet has a NHL All-Star Skills in 30 minutes program airing on Saturday at 7 pm. They’re also repeating the game(s) right after.
Now, if you want more detail, EOTP laboured hard and got the pagerank prize, so here’s their detailed schedule of the Skills Event likely better than the NHL could format it: