The NHL All-Star Game is like this relic from another time, only it’s not something charming like an antique chair from the Victorian Era; it’s more like a sun dial, or a newspaper.
It served a purpose at some point in history but in today’s world nobody wants or needs it anymore.
Fans and players almost universally agree the game is no longer necessary. The effort level on the ice, much like the enthusiasm at home and in the stands, is nonexistent. The event generates millions of dollars for the host city and league, however, so it’s not going to disappear completely.
So how we can improve it? How can we save what was once the NHL’s marquee regular-season event that has descended into a chore for everyone involved?
We rethink the event by transforming it into a more fan-friendly happening, and that includes dropping the game itself forever, by modeling the long weekend after Comic-Con and incorporating the bye week the NHL plans to install in next year’s schedule.
The NHL wants to make money. The fans want to be entertained. The players want to enjoy their only true time to rest and recover during the season.
The NHL All-Star Hockey-Con will satisfy the needs of everyone.
• All-Star weekend will continue to occur at mid-season, only the new version will involve a longer break. The current format sees the NHL shut down from Thursday to Monday with some sort of festivities scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The new format would extend the break by two days, as the NHL would take its break from Thursday through Wednesday.
• Sometimes the answer to a problem is right in front of your face and you just can’t see it. The NHL’s regular-season is a physical grind that we as regular people can only imagine. Games every other night, sometimes stretches of three in four, four in six or six in nine nights. The idea to give teams a five-day “bye” between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28 next season in exchange for the NHLPA allowing for a change to 3-on-3 in this year’s game is an example of a solution being on the tips of everyone’s tongues, but no one being able to formulate the words.
A five-day bye week is great, because anyone that watches hockey around this time of year can see the diminished product. Instead of building in a five-day bye along with an All-Star break, this plan gives everyone seven days off at the same time but uses the simultaneous availability to make for a better All-Star product for fans.
• Las Vegas. Every year. We make the destination as big a draw as the event. Sorry, non-traditional markets, but we can set up sort of revenue sharing so everyone gets a taste. No offense to Columbus, but we want to have the game in a place everyone wants to go.
• Thursday and Wednesday are like the bookend days now; travel/rest days for anyone taking part in the All-Star week. The fan fests that exist at the events now are constantly happening in this format. There will be games, rides, etc. for adults and kids to do at the local convention center along with booths for people that have hockey-related products and technology to sell from Friday-Tuesday.
• This is where the Comic-Con format comes into play. There will be four, hour-long panels involving the 11 players on each team. Fans would pack a room (and pay handsomely to do so) and would get to watch a moderator (maybe Liam McHugh from NBC or someone of that ilk) bounce questions off the players for 30 minutes, then open the floor to select fans to ask questions for the final 30 minutes. Following that session, there would be a second hour-long event in a neighboring room for fans to get autographs from and take pictures with the players from that session. Media can cover the panels like they would anything else. If they need something specific, make a request in advance for five minutes of a player’s time afterward.
• Hold the first session at 11 a.m. and the last one at 2 p.m., figure everything gets completed by 5 p.m., more than enough time for everyone to cleanse their pallets and get ready for the night festivities.
• Gone forever is the wondrous, drunken All-Star draft and it’s never coming back. Whatever this country music monstrosity (nothing against country music, as this could be rap/rock/smooth jazz and it would still be a monstrosity) thing is that’s happening Friday night this year won’t happen ever under this new plan. The NHL needs a TV event for Friday night so something has to happen involving the players that doesn’t embarrass them yet is enjoyable in a live format.
The answer: Hollywood Game Night, only it’s with hockey players.
For those who don’t know, Hollywood Game Night is an hour-long NBC game show hosted by Jane Lynch and, well, hijinks ensue for an hour. There’s one regular person on each team and the teams battle it out for prizes. The regular person gets to play a game with famous people. It’s fun, silly and people seem to enjoy it.
The NHL would put on a two-hour show starting at 8 p.m. ET involving four teams and it wouldn’t even require every single All-Star to attend. You get three players, two NHL-level celebrities and a regular person, so a total of 12 players would need to commit, and we all get to watch NHL players in a new, fun, different context that doesn’t require anyone to be picked last and suffer the indignity of a free car.
It would be cross-promotional fun for the league and network and could be played live at the convention center in front of paying fans. The four contestants can have some amazing, pre-selected human interest angle. The winner can get season tickets to a team of his/her choosing. Or whatever. This would be way more watchable than what’s happening this Friday night.
• Not that fans care about this, but there will be a huge media session that mirrors what happens at the Stanley Cup Final. Figure two 30-minute sessions involving two separate waves of players. Fill those recorders and ask anything you want about the previous night’s events that you couldn’t ask about then.
• The idea behind this structure is to have a panel of some sort of every day. With the All-Stars already having done their work and the skills competition set for Saturday night, the NHL will have a two-hour panel featuring as many legends as they can muster. Someone would moderate and there would again be an opening of a floor for questions and autograph session afterward.
• There would also be a Gary Bettman state of the league of the panel that would include any major player in the NHL’s front office. Just like with the other panel, this is for fans to listen and ask questions. This has potential to go off the rails but Bettman is the kind of person that isn’t afraid of a tough or stupid question, so here’s to guessing he’d be up for this for an hour. There would be probably no need for an autograph session afterward.
• Skills competition! That doesn’t change. It’s still fun. Maybe we invent some new events but in terms of the current All-Star weekend, this is status quo.
• No All-Star Game. Saturday night’s skills display is the only on-ice event of the week. If you were an All-Star, you get to go home a day earlier than you normally would. You can fly directly to a tropical destination with your family and still get 2-3 days of rest that doesn’t really come when you have All-Star responsibilities. This should incentivize certain players that are always looking to get out of the game to come, as they have less to do and still get to put their feet up for a few days.
• Here’s where we depart into new territory. The NHL seems to get that with the outdoor games, ratings don’t matter as much as the revenue that’s generated on-site. So what we do is backload the week with panels for all 30 teams, sans the All-Stars that have already gone home. Think of these as those offseason fan fests a lot of teams hold only they are all concentrated in one location.
• Just like with the All-Stars, there will be ballots that choose the players who will attend the Hockey-Con panels from Sunday-Wednesday, only the voting is done entirely in an analog fashion at the arenas. Each team will send five players, its coach and GM for one day to the Hockey-Con panels and the players are chosen by home fans in the arena.
• Since we all admit hockey is a niche sport, we can have a lot of the team panels overlap without concern about losing money. We divide them over the three days and have the team’s local TV/radio personality moderate the panel. There’s an autograph meet and greet afterward. It’s Las Vegas and there’s conference rooms everywhere. It’s doable. Passes are $100 for the day. It’s free money for the NHL.
• The commitment for the players/coach/GM is one day so you have at least a three-day break no matter when you have to be there for a team panel. Heck, it’s Las Vegas, so you can make a week out of it there if you really wanted. If your panel is Tuesday afternoon and you want to do the bare minimum, fly in Monday night and fly out Tuesday evening and enjoy the hell out of life from Thursday to Sunday like you would anyway. Easy peasy.
• Nothing over these final three days is a made-for-TV event, but there’s nothing on NHL Network. Air select panels live all day instead of a playoff game from 1985. It will be like C-SPAN for hockey fans.
Now, what would you pay for something like this? Tickets for this weekend in Nashville are going for $321, which includes the game and skills competition. You couldn’t charge that for just skills…or could you? If the NHL charged $250 (about 80 percent of that), they couldn’t make up the difference, and much more, in the surrounding events?
What would a fan pay for a week’s worth of events? There could be partial packages to make things more flexible for the fan that can’t do six days in Vegas.
Nobody wants to watch the game. Everybody wants to interact with the sport’s stars and, not for nothing, the NHL’s goals should be to get its game’s biggest stars in front of fans in a human way as often as possible. If the NHL can make a few extra bucks and player can get an extended rest at the same time, isn’t that good for everyone?
There are probably a thousands logistical reasons why this can’t work but damn it, this is the dream and if only a portion of it can happen and we rid ourselves of the game, this will all have been worth it.