The NHL all-star game wasn't always the long, drawn-out snore fest it is has been these past couple of decades. When the Stanley Cup defending champions played the best of the rest of the league, it was a competitive game, and meant something. The players played to win. There were hits, goals, saves, effort. It looked like real hockey.
Gradually, over the years, the all-star game evolved into something completely different.
More than anything else, it is now an NHL trade show, designed as much to keep sponsors happy as it is to entertain fans.
The event rotated from city to city – with a preference given to franchises that needed a boost in visibility. For many of the players, especially the veterans, it was one more obligation in a long season. Many would rather take the weekend off to recharge the batteries than play in a meaningless exercise in shinny.
Accordingly, after trying all types of different formats to make the game more entertaining, the NHL finally hit upon a winning solution. Starting with this season's game – scheduled for Nashville on the final weekend of January, 2016 – the all-star game will be played in a three-on-three format.
Instead of one 60-minute skating party, the game will be divided into three 20-minute mini-games. There will be four teams entered, each with 11 players – one team representing each NHL division.
The Pacific will play the Central in a 20-minute game; the Metropolitan will play the Atlantic in the other; with the winners advancing to play a 20-minute championship final.
The victorious team will divide purse of $1-million – and if you think that doesn't matter to millionaire athletes, you don't know much about the spending habits of NHL players, who love to get their hands on a cash prize, even at the salaries they're making.
The value of the new format – introduced on a one-year experimental basis – is it might actually be a game you want to watch.
The reality is, you can't loaf in three-on-three hockey and you can't hide in three-on-three hockey. With all that open ice, it'll be a track meet – and a vast improvement from all the previous formats, which most closely resembled old-timers hockey, played in three-quarter time, with no one daring even to brush up against each other, let alone make a hit.
The lack of body contact was understandable on one level because nobody wants to get injured in an exhibition, not when the playoff races are so competitive.
But the net effect was that the all-star game didn't bear even a reasonable facsimile to the product the NHL was trying to sell the rest of the year. If you somehow stayed with it for the entire match, your overriding thought usually was, "Those are 2 1/2 hours of my life that I can never get back." The most entertaining part of the last handful of games was actually the pregame player draft, in which the NHL players picked their own teams – schoolyard style – and even traded players back and forth. Last year was a particularly entertaining exercise, with some of the players so overserved that they showed glimpses of the giggly sides of their personalities – something they otherwise rarely do.
The NHL is forever tweaking its rule book and its special-events calendar to improve the fan experience. Some things work. Others don't.
But regular-season, three-on-three overtime – introduced this year and designed to keep shootouts to a bare minimum – has been wholly embraced by all except for a handful of spoil sports.
We are in an era now where the players have never been bigger; the teams backcheck harder than ever; but the size of the ice surface hasn't changed, creating gridlock in the defensive zone and in front of the net.
Three-on-three shows how good hockey can be when the players actually have to room to demonstrate their skills.
Playing a three-on-three mini-game for a full 20 minutes (as opposed to the maximum five minutes of the current OT format) will be an interesting experiment in stamina because the fatigue the players endure near the end will be significant.
Fatigue creates mistakes. Mistakes lead to more scoring chances. More scoring chances theoretically should result in more goals.
It's a radical idea to fix something that really is broken and in fact, probably should have been thought of much sooner.