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Eric Duhatschek

All-stars to pick teams schoolyard style Add to ...

On the burning question of how to make the drudge-fest all-star game more meaningful, you have to give the NHL credit. It has tried multiple tweaks and format changes over the years, designed to ramp up the intensity just enough so the game bears a reasonable facsimile to pro hockey.

None ever really worked. North America against the world? Sorry. The NHL tried it for five consecutive years and, perhaps in the 1970s, when there were still some lingering animosity between European and North American players, it might have ramped up the intensity a bit.

Instead, what the league discovered was that the players had become one big happy NHL family. If two Anaheim Ducks went into the corner of the rink, it didn't matter if one was from Helsinki and the other from Vancouver, in one day's time, they would be back as NHL teammates, competing for the only thing that really mattered, the Stanley Cup.

For that matter, there have been so many variations of the YoungStars format that it is hard to keep track of them all. The first time out, it was a fun exercise - kids, too soon to be jaded about how little the game means, competing hard and wanting to win. But the beginning of the end came in 2007 when the Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins was invited to play and went through the motions in such an obvious way that it was necessary to get an answer to his studied indifference in what was an otherwise excellent rookie season. Malkin's answer sent a sobering message: He would have been more engaged if he'd been invited to play "in the adult game."

So for January of 2011 in Raleigh, where the Carolina Hurricanes will play host for the first time, the league and players association are trying something new again. This time, the wrinkle is a riff on the old schoolyard tradition of picking sides in the same way as dodge ball. The fans pick the first six, something you can't change because of its marketing appeal, even in the years there is no Rory Fitzpatrick write-in campaign.

From there, hockey operations will fill out the rest of the all-star rosters. Once the players assemble in Carolina, they'll pick their captains and then the captains get to choose their own teammates, irrespective of conference, division, nationality or even current form. They can add whomever they want in whatever order they want, no matter how tenuous the connection. Maybe they once played world junior together. Maybe they dressed beside each other on the same bantam team. Maybe somebody bought dinner the night before.

You wonder how the final player chosen is going to feel and you hope it's someone with a sense of humour who can laugh off the perceived snub.

When I brought it up with him Wednesday, retired player and NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan conceded that it was "a fair question" but noted that, ironically, the players themselves seemed the least concerned about how that might look - with perhaps just two left, squirming like little kids, hoping not to be the last man standing.

"We may try to soften that a little," Shanahan said. "I can say this: They're still all all-stars and it's the last worry on their minds. They're not sensitive guys.

"As one of them said to me, 'The guy who goes fifth will think he should have gone third and the guy who went 12th will think he should have went 10th and so on down the line.'"

It wasn't until the late 1980s that all-star games became exhibitions of glorified shinny, where the primary goal was to escape from the weekend uninjured.

More and more in recent years, players have bowed out for personal reasons, preferring rest over committing to a whirlwind 48-hour party in the midst of a busy 82-game schedule. There was even a smidgeon of controversy in 2009, when Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings bowed out with an injury and the NHL forced him to sit out the next regular-season game, on the grounds that if he wasn't healthy enough to compete in the no-hit all-star game, he surely wasn't up to resuming the grind of NHL play within 48 hours.

The Red Wings were miffed by the decision, but the commissioner's motivation was pure - he wanted players to take the all-star game a little more seriously than they do. This new format may not change much in the grand scheme of things, but at least it has people talking and mulling over which players might be coveted or shunned. And if the last few all-star outings have told us anything, generating minimal buzz is better than none at all.



Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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