Every year, millions of hockey fans take a mid-season break to watch the NHL All-Star Game, an exhibition weekend that aims to showcase the leagues’ best players. All-star games have taken root in many professional sports leagues — most notably the NFL Pro Bowl, the MLB Midsummer Classic, and the NBA All-Star Game.
Traditionally, league officials determined all-star rosters, which remains only partially the case today. For the NHL All-Star Game, 40 players are selected by the league’s Hockey Operations Department to compete on four seperate teams, and four individual captains are selected by fans through an online voting system. Once the fans have elected them, the four appointed captains get to select their teams based on the 40-athlete pool.
“I do enjoy the all-star festivities,” said U of T graduate student Shakeeb Ahmed. “Having the captains pick the team gives it a certain pond hockey feel to it.”
For Ahmed, the NHL All-Star Game is so enjoyable because there’s nothing to lose. Athletes get to showcase their individual skills, like hardest shot and fastest skate time, and with games using a three-on-three format with modified rules, some pressure is relieved. “[It’s] not so serious” he said, “like the rest of the NHL season. I think the game is of course for fun and entertainment [and] I also think it’s a way to showcase the immense talent in the league.”
Lindsay Boileau, a business management student at Ryerson, prefers the all-star skills competitions to the actual games, citing the modified rules and nonchalant play from athletes as a deterrent to watching the game. “I personally don’t look forward to the All-Star Game each year,” she said. “Player’s aren’t trying their best and are going easy on each other. So it’s not very entertaining for me to watch personally.”
Undoubtedly an opportunity to watch players let loose and have some fun — something professional leagues often forget — all-star weekends breed conversations surrounding who actually benefits from the exhibitions.
Proceeds from the NHL All-Star Game go directly to players’ pensions, but is the event all fun and games, or does the league have a hidden agenda?
According to Ahmed, the exhibition’s only underpinning is that it gives host cities like Nashville, this year’s host, the opportunity to rake in a lot of added business. “[The All-Star Game] gives the city hosting it gain sales and revenue in large quantities in a short period of time,” he said, adding that this doesn’t just mean demand for NHL merchandise but for various businesses and attractions in the city as well.
Boileau, for one, expresses more cynicism, admitting that she doesn’t see a point in the NHL’s hosting an All-Star Game, which looks like a money-grab to her. “Now you see players refusing to attend the All-Star Game after being voted in by fans,” she said. “This has led the NHL to suspend players for one game after the all-star break. So to me it just looks like a way for the league to make extra money.”
A self-proclaimed Leafs and Penguins fan, Boileau cites the John Scott controversy as a prime example of the NHL’s sticky hand in the all-star festivities. She agrees that this All-Star Game was defined by the audience the AHL goon drew, which had non-hockey fans tuning in to watch the exhibition. “This All-Star Game in particular probably did spark the interest of people who wouldn’t normally watch hockey. This is due to the media surrounding John Scott, an enforcer who wasn’t well known in the NHL. But this normally doesn’t happen, that a goon gets voted in.”
Overall, the NHL All-Star Game and the events leading up to it is made for entertainment purposes: to showcase the ‘not-so-serious’ side of different athletes. For every fan that enjoys All-Star Games, whether it’s the skills competitions or John Scott’s game-winning goal in the final, there are multiple players, coaches, and officials who revel in the opportunity to watch players just have fun.