Nathan MacKinnon enjoyed when the NHL all-star game featured North America against the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Something similar could be coming back next year, but with a twist.
The league is in talks with players to bring what commissioner Gary Bettman called a “distinct international flavour” to the 2021 all-star weekend in South Florida. Not quite North America against the world, but more like a miniature 3-on-3 tournament with players representing the United States, Canada and other top hockey countries.
It’s not a replacement for the Olympics, but players are largely in favour of spicing up all-star festivities and playing for more than divisional pride.
“Oh, that would be cool,” Canada-born Dallas Stars centre Tyler Seguin said. “I wonder if that would get it even more competitive. I’m not sure. It would be interesting.”
Think about MacKinnon, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby playing for Canada against Americans Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and Jack Eichel, or Sweden’s Victor Hedman, Elias Pettersson and Filip Forsberg facing off against Finland’s Patrik Laine, Aleksander Barkov and Mikko Rantanen.
“I think any time you get some country rivalries going, there’ll be a little more aggressiveness,” U.S.-born Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Jaccob Slavin said. “It would be cool.”
The NHL is five years into holding a 3-on-3 all-star tournament by division. The winning team gets to split US$1-million and the wide-open ice has proven more entertaining than the old format.
“I like the 3-on-3 the most,” said Seguin, who has made six all-star appearances. “I played in a couple of the 5-on-5 games and they were fun, but I think the 3-on-3 is the best.”
Given the success of the 3-on-3, it would be silly to abandon it now. But after the league and players couldn’t come to an agreement on holding a World Cup of Hockey in the winter of 2021, an international all-star tournament would be a consolation prize.
“I don’t think anything really means as much as the Olympics, to be honest with you,” Kane said. “But I think it’s always an honour to play for your country.”
After the International Olympic Committee didn’t give the NHL the same insurance, travel and accommodations benefits in 2018 as the previous five games, the league ended its streak of participating. And despite significant investment in and fascination with the Chinese market, there’s no guarantee NHL players go to Beijing in 2022.
“I can’t say that with certainty — not to give people false hope,” Bettman said. “From our standpoint, we believe and our experience both with going to five Olympics and then not going to Pyeongchang tells us that going is extraordinarily disruptive to the season.”
Because the 2016 World Cup of Hockey featured a Team North America with the best age-23-and-under players from the U.S. and Canada, Crosby, McDavid and MacKinnon have never played together, and neither have Matthews, Kane and Eichel. Doing so at all-star weekend would provide some entertainment, but Kane is still holding out hope that it can happen for real in Beijing.
“I think sometimes [NHL executives] portray that view on the Olympics and then there’s always, I think, some room to maybe try and figure it out,” he said. “It’s becoming pretty close to that date where you probably need to decide if we’re going or not. It would be fun. I think we could put a pretty good American team together. Obviously some other teams would have some good young players, as well, but it would be fun to play with some of those guys.”