The problem with Mitch Marner’s Miami Vice bit during the NHL all-star weekend wasn’t conceptual. There is a world in which the skit was funny.
Like everything else the NHL does when it’s really trying, it’s the execution that disappoints.
All the little details were wrong. The ski-goggle sunglasses didn’t make any sense. They ripped off the show, but couldn’t bring themselves to spring for the real theme music.
And the writing? Did the Board of Governors come up with this via committee after a champagne buffet? Because if the mission statement was ‘Golden Girls is comedy’s Mt. Everest’, they nailed it.
Watch Marner exchange leaden bon mots with on-ice host P.K. Subban – “We’re in Florida. You know what I need.” – (what Marner needs is Roberto Luongo, which is both too obvious and too weird).
This is how you do a variety show if the audience members are Jerry Lewis nostalgists. If it’s a new generation of fans weaned on Instagram, then I’m not so sure.
Toronto to host 2024 NHL All-Star festivities
This isn’t new news. Every all-star extravaganza in every league fits somewhere on the cheese scale. The players want to be chosen for the teams, but none of them want to actually participate. The activities, especially the wretched skills competitions, are so half-assed that they begin to call into question why you watch the sport in the first place.
The difference between the NHL’s version and everyone else’s is a difficult-to-define cool factor. Other sports have it. The NHL does not.
Watching the NHL trying to be TikTok popular is like watching your dad breakdance. The longer it goes on, the more you feel your soul coming untethered from your body.
One day would be horrible enough, but an entire weekend of this audio-visual torture elevates it to a spiritual experience. I’ve never done ayahuasca in the Brazilian rain forest, but I have watched Sidney Crosby get dropped in the dunk tank during the “Splash Shot” challenge. I’m guessing it’s kind of the same.
This spectacle followed a week in which the main topic around the league was its not-so-great U.S. TV ratings after switching broadcasters. It’s almost too perfect. It’s not clear if Americans are fleeing the NHL’s product, but just in case, hockey would like to present everyone with a reason to do so.
Every year it’s the same thing – the NHL tries harder to be liked, and fewer people bother laughing at it for it. Judging by the mortified looks, even the players seem to get that this isn’t a career highlight. It’s something they’ll have to live down.
Pettersson wins hardest shot, Crosby takes a dip at NHL all-star skills competition
When was the NHL at its coolest? Probably the 1970s and ‘80s. Open ice. Wayne Gretzky. Shocking violence. Great hair.
That NHL wasn’t fundamentally different than the one that exists now, but it understood something about itself – that it’s not for everyone. Hockey is a strange sport played by farmers and suburban Richie Riches.
It’s never going to be the biggest thing going. That’s its power. The NFL is Bruce Springsteen. Everybody loves the Boss. Hockey is Patti Smith. Not everyone’s going to dig it, but the people who do really do. The old NHL was able to embrace, even glory in, its outsider status.
Over the past 30-odd years, the NHL has been caught in a deepening personality bind. It wants to be a bigger deal, because more exposure means more money. But it also wants to retain its own culture, one in which all displays of individualism are suspect.
Marner is permitted a personality because he’s an all-star who’s been in the league a few years. Can you imagine someone on the Leafs’ third line or a rookie asking to do Crockett and Tubbs before a game? Suddenly, they’d be ‘that guy’. That guy who doesn’t know his place. That guy who’s got his priorities all mixed up.
Hockey doesn’t want anyone getting too big for their britches, but then for one weekend a year, everyone’s supposed to flip a switch and turn into Charles Barkley.
You know why Barkley’s cool? Because he never cared what anyone thought of him. His individuality was not contingent on his time in the league or his spot on the locker-room popularity chart. He was loud, sharp and a delight to behold the whole time he played, and continues to be so now. The NBA is full of players like that, which is why the NBA all-star weekend – despite its defence-free centrepiece – is good TV.
The NHL doesn’t have a single guy like that, which is why its all-star weekend is a cringe convention.
That’s fine. Hockey players are as free as the rest of us to be boring. But it makes the league’s sporadic attempts to transplant personalities onto its employees funny, and not in the ha-ha way. You can practically feel someone just off-screen waving a sign that reads ‘Engage in light, amusing banter NOW’ every time the mics are hot. Then a bunch of excruciated bros in board shorts mumble at each other like they’re all trying out English for the first time.
There are a million reasons that Americans could be turning against the NHL. It probably has more to do with cable-cutting and streaming than anything else. How much stuff can any of us watch on TV? We’re all way too busy staring at our phones.
Whether there is a problem, the fix isn’t trying to be like some other, cooler sport. All you can do is lean into what you do well and hope some people like it.
It would help if the NHL’s stars embraced the entertainer part of their job description. But that only works if it’s organic. The average sports consumer can spot a phony from two towns over.
Think of the sports that are having sustained moments right now – football, the other football, basketball, Formula 1. What do they have in common? Nothing about their spokes-athletes is contrived. Their most recognizable stars have actual thoughts that they want to share, often in amusing or combative ways. They seem like real people.
Real is cool. Dunk tanks not so much.