RALEIGH, N.C. -- And now for something completely different, brought to you courtesy of the NHL.
Hey, if nothing else, give the league credit for trying. No pro sports league gets anyone excited with their All-Star games, and chances are the NHL's spectacle Sunday in Raleigh won't either. But it may not matter if an imaginative lead-up that has become the focal point of the weekend's festivities makes the game more compelling than it probably deserves to be.
|Eric Staal gets to draft his own fantasy All-Star team. (Getty Images)|
The team named after him, that is.
And the team for which he and two alternates will get to choose the players. Meanwhile, the team named for its captain Nicklas Lidstrom will do the same, drafting from a pool of players chosen mostly by the league's hockey operations department after the first six were voted in by fans.
Think of it as a pickup game at the local rink. The difference though is that everyone here is a really good player. And no one has likely ever known the feeling of being taken last.
But someone will get that distinction Friday night when the draft takes place, a made-for-television event and just the kind of unique wrinkle that might attract more than just die-hard fantasy players and poolies.
"Anytime you pick something, you want to see it play out in the end," Staal said. "You want to know how it shakes out."
Not that anyone should expect anything rivaling the seventh game of a playoff series. Truth is that while the game itself is supposed to showcase the sport and its top players at their best, it usually ends up a nominal part of a weekend designed as an entertainment package for fans and corporate sponsors.
"There's not that much intensity out there," conceded Martin St. Louis, an alternate captain for Team Lidstrom. "This format is going to bring a little more competitiveness to it, but I don't think it's going to be to the point where guys are putting themselves in a vulnerable position or situation to get injured."
It wasn't always that way. In fact, when the foundation of the modern-day All-Star Game was created in 1947, there was plenty of heat because the reigning Stanley Cup champions played the best of the rest from what was then a six-team league. That format lasted four years, and it was taken seriously enough by players that the legendary Gordie Howe even got into a couple of fights.
"You hated those bastards," Howe once said.
No more, with even the most bitter in-season rivals getting caught up in the atmosphere.
"Once you get to an event, it's kind of washed into the distance and you just have fun with it," said Team Staal alternate captain Mike Green. "Players don't get a chance to get familiar off the ice so it would be nice to see some faces that you know and mingle a little bit."
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Those collegial roots might have been planted in the early 1950s, when the NHL tried a hybrid Canadian-American team format that lasted only two years. The game then reverted back to having the Stanley Cup champs face the All-Stars, a format that last until 1967 when the league doubled in size to 12 teams and divided into East and West divisions.
During the mid-'70s expansion, the NHL renamed its conferences and All-Star teams Campbell and Wales, and they played each other for the next 20 years, except for 1979 and 1987, when special exhibition games against Soviet teams replaced the All-Star contest. East vs. West came back in 1994, and in 1998 -- to set the tone for the upcoming Winter Olympics -- it was North Americans against players from the rest of the world.
A year after the Salt Lake Games, it was East and West again. Now it's a fantasy draft.
Unfortunately, some of the game's marquee names like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin won't be in one of hockey's most successful non-traditional markets because of injuries. Neither will Jarome Iginla, who begged off for personal reasons. But with Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Rick Nash, the Sedin twins and four members of last season's Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks around, there will be no shortage of star power and free-wheeling, fan-friendly action.
In essence that means lots of offense, little defense and not a hint of hitting. Kind of what you might expect in a pickup game devoid of silly things like rules. Best team wins, more often than not, if it manages to get away the last shot.
If someone like Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche or Philadelphia's Claude Giroux shines in their debut All-Star Game the way Vincent Damphousse did with four goals in the 1991 game, great. If Staal or rookie Jeff Skinner produces the same kind of drama at home in Carolina that Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque did when he scored the 1996 winning goal in Boston with 37 seconds remaining in the third period, even better.
And if not, who cares?
"Really, this is supposed to be about everyone enjoying themselves and having some fun," Stamkos said. "And that's good for the game."