Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It'll be street hockey on steroids

NHL's new all-star format like kids playing on road -- minus the cars

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The NHL doesn't always get it wrong. It just feels that way.

There are still those old-schoolers who have never warmed to the shootout, arguing that a skills competition devalues a victory. After all, you don't have a home run competition to decide a major league baseball game.

Fair enough. But that ignores the fact that no paying customers walk out of the building or change the channel after a shootout begins, like it or not.

In the NHL, an outfit that is having so much difficulty attracting fans in many soft markets, any tweak that might keep them in the arena cannot be dismissed because it runs contrary to whatever the league was peddling when Gordie Howe was a rookie.

It's not unlike video replay, a two-referee system or the zero tolerance policy on interference, when not so long ago there was more clutching and grabbing than a junior high prom -- all fundamental changes which after the inevitable initial snags are widely considered to have improved the overall on-ice product.

Which bring us to Brendan Shanahan's all-star game concept, straight out of the school yard, where captains will pick their own teammates. It doesn't matter what conference. No Campbell versus Wales. No Europe against North America. No who cares versus whatever.

"The players that have heard about this concept think it's fun," reasoned Shanahan, the eight-time all-star who now serves as the NHL's vice-president of hockey and business development. "They're interested to see how the draft shakes down. Do the captains focus on individual talents? Do they focus on the skills competition or on the game? Do they lock up their goaltenders or go after scoring? Everybody is interested and we want people to see it."

Here's a hunch: It's going to be a hat trick. It can't miss, especially in the old country.

Why? Because we live in a place where the entire nation stops to watch Team Canada's Olympic squad unveiled live on national television. A place where thousands upon thousands of regular folks draft their own fantasy teams. A place where almost every boy and girl has stood on a hockey rink or back yard or driveway at one point in their life to be picked (or not) or thrown in their sticks.

Tell me that there won't be a fascination about who Sidney Crosby would pick for his team if the players in that theoretical backyard just happened to be the best in the world.

This is street hockey on steroids. It will breathe new life into a tired, ever-changing all-star format that possesses less relevance than a Jersey Shore reunion show. And it will begin with the players.

"If a suit from the NHL was tapping me on the shoulder and telling me to go win an event as opposed to Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky telling me to do it... there is a different feel when your peers are asking you to do something," Shanahan said. "It becomes a little bit more competitive. I'd probably know each and every player that went ahead of me in the draft and carry that out into the game with me."

It won't make everybody happy. Here's a news flash: Nothing does.

But wait until the NHL gets a load of the Canadian television ratings for the all-star draft. Geez, we'll plunk ourselves in front of the tube for 12 straight hours to watch a small army of talking heads analyze a couple of dozen deals at the trade deadline. So sufficient numbers will probably sit still while Crosby and, say, Jonathan Toews take turns divvying up their respective sides... to be followed by 12 straight hours of a small army of talking heads analyzing every selection and what it could mean to the fate of civilization as we know it.

It's not exactly rocket surgery. Shanahan's proposal is just an all-star twist on the widely successful outdoor extravaganzas, which began back when the Canadiens and Oilers first shivered through the Heritage Classic in 2003 at Commonwealth Stadium. The most recent Winter Classic last year at Wrigley Field (the Hawks versus the Wings), drew the highest U.S. television rating in 33 years.

For most American viewers, the outdoor games are novelties, watching Pavel Datsyuk stickhandle through snowflakes. But for Canadians, in general, the bond runs much deeper to the core. It's a memory machine. It's the backyard, at home.

If that sounds hokey, then hokey sells. Just watch.

All they need now is to get rid of the zebras, with the only stoppage in play coming when Alex Ovechkin yells, "Car!"

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2010 C6

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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