A few weeks ago, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston broke some interesting news on Hockey Night in Canada: The NHL and NHLPA have discussed someday scrapping the all-star game, possibly to make room for an overseas event.
The news was no doubt devastating to all the hockey fans out there who love the modern NHL All-Star Game. But other than those three people, the rest of us were intrigued. The league has spent years playing with the all-star format in an attempt to inject some life into the proceedings, with decidedly mixed results. But the basics have always been the same: Take the best players from around the league, preferably with at least one representative from each team, have them face off in head-to-head competition, and hope they at least pretend to try.
We’ve kind of assumed it would always be like that. But what if we could replace the existing all-star game, either with a radically different format, or something completely new? That gives us some room to get creative.
So let’s do that. Here are 10 options — some realistic, some not so much — that the league and its players could consider if they ever did decide to scrap the current version of the all-star game.
The idea: A Ryder Cup-style international tournament
We’ll start here, since this is reportedly one of the ideas the league has been kicking around. A full Ryder Cup series – perhaps one pitting North America against the rest of the world – would work best as a longer series, and has been rumoured as an every-few-years event that could supplement the World Cup on the international calendar. But a scaled-down version, especially one played in Europe, could be a lot of fun, too.
Pros: Like the current all-star game, you’d get the best players in the world. Unlike the current all-star game, those players might be motivated to actually look interested, since they’d kind of be playing for national pride. And if you played the game outside of North America, you’d be seeding some of those international markets that are so important to the league’s future growth.
Cons: We tried the “North America vs. The World” thing already; that was the all-star format from 1998 through 2002. Once the novelty factor wore off, it wasn’t all that good. The international component, mixed with the one-player-per-team requirement, generated some truly odd picks. And the players didn’t seem any more interested than they did for conference-based play.
Bottom line: A Ryder Cup for hockey is a cool idea that could be a lot of fun. But if we’re going to do it, let’s make sure we set aside the time to do it right rather than trying to squeeze in an abbreviated version over a weekend.
The idea: An outdoor all-star game
This could take various forms. Maybe you go with a standard East-vs.-West game, or the current division-based format, but you play the whole thing outdoors. Or you could combine it with other ideas on this list – maybe an outdoor all-star game in Europe?
Pros: Outdoor games are just cool, especially when the league picks a prime venue. The standard all-star games generally aren’t much to look at, so some inspiring background visuals would compensate for that. Players seem to like playing outdoors, too, so you might get fewer guys declining their invitations. And outdoor venues mean more seats to sell, and more room for corporate bigwigs, so everyone makes more money.
Cons: The outdoor concept has been overdone in recent years, so some of the novelty has worn off. You’d also be all but ruling out certain markets for ever hosting an all-star weekend. And of course, there’s always the risk of uncooperative weather delaying or even cancelling the game.
Bottom line: It’s not hard to imagine the league trying this out at some point down the road. They could frame it as a one-off experiment, see how it goes, and then make the change permanent if it worked.
The idea: Challenge the KHL to a best-on-best game or series
Anyone remember Rendez-vous ’87, the two-game series between NHL all-stars and the Soviet national team that replaced the 1987 all-star game? This wouldn’t be quite the same, but an NHL-vs.-KHL matchup could bring back some of that us-vs.-them international intrigue fans used to enjoy back in the ’70s and ’80s.
Pros: While nobody would expect Olympic-level intensity, there would be at least a little pride on the line here. For NHL fans, the KHL roster would be a mix of familiar names and new faces, which would be interesting. And the idea fits with the NHL’s vision of increasing its international footprint – you could play the game overseas occasionally, or even every time.
Cons: While it may be out-of-mind for many fans, the KHL is still competition as far as the NHL is concerned. It’s doubtful that they’d want to give their rivals any kind of increased visibility.
Bottom line: Let’s file this one under “fun but unlikely.”
The idea: Have one all-star team, and have them play the reigning Stanley Cup champions
This isn’t a new idea; it’s how the all-star game worked throughout the Original Six era.
Pros: Unlike every other pro sports league, the NHL says it wants to market teams over players. Well, here’s a great chance to market your Cup champs, while also paying tribute to your past. And it would be interesting to see how a good team that’s used to playing together would fare against an all-star roster that was put together on short notice.
Cons: On paper, at least, the all-star team would be miles better than the reigning champs, so the games could turn into an embarrassing blowout. You’d have half as many all-star slots to work with, so some good players would be left out and some teams wouldn’t be included. And you can imagine how the Cup champs would feel about every other team in the league getting a weekend off to rest and recover while they have to play.
Bottom line: It’s a cool idea, but probably one whose moment has passed.
The idea: Have one all-star team, and have them play the team from the host city
It’s basically the same idea as above, except we pick a host team and swap them in for the reigning champs.
Pros: This gives you the chance to rotate the game around, especially to any markets that needed some extra help generating fan interest. Not that we ever see those in the NHL.
Cons: We’d essentially be turning the all-star game into a showcase event for one market. Then again, the league kind of already does that – remember when the game was in Columbus and the 11th-place Blue Jackets got a conference-high three reps, including a captain and the MVP (in a game his team lost)? If that’s what the league wants, you may as well take the concept all the way.
Bottom line: It’s hard to imagine many fans outside of the host market getting excited for this one. But for those local fans, it could be a once-in-a-generation memory.
The idea: Keep the current format, but up the stakes
The biggest problem with modern all-star games is a lack of effort. The players go at half-speed, nobody hits or blocks shots, and half the players won’t even shoot the puck. And why would they? There’s really no reason to anyone to risk injury or fatigue by actually trying.
The league has tried to address this by offering cash incentives to the winning team, but that only goes so far. And it’s not only hockey that struggles with this problem; we’ve seen MLB put home field in the World Series up for grabs. But what if the NHL went even further?
Hear me out: We keep the current four-division mini-tournament format, switch back to 5-on-5, and give every team from the winning division two points in the regular season standings. Yes, real points. Win the mini-tournament, and you help your real team in the playoff race.
Pros: Two points isn’t much, especially if everyone else in your division is getting them, too. But it could be enough to shift a wild-card race, or home-ice advantage in the conference final. That should be enough to get the players’ attention, and would allow the NHL to accurately market the event as the most meaningful all-star game in sports. And we don’t even have to worry about destroying the integrity of the standings, since the loser point already did that.
Cons: If your favourite team missed the playoffs because of the all-star bonus points, you’d lose your mind.
Bottom line: This will never happen.
The idea: Scrap the game, but keep the skills competition
Let’s face it — the Saturday night skills competition is usually more fun than the actual game these days. The players get to show some personality, the fans have fun, and the whole thing usually produces more memorable moments.
So why not just make the whole weekend out of the skills competition? Add more events, stretch it out over two days, and really lean into the novelty of it all. And if you still wanted to include a traditional game as part of the weekend, you could always feature someone other than NHLers. Maybe a women’s all-star game?
Pros: Less half-hearted backchecking, more Chewbacca.
Cons: You can have too much of a good thing. It’s possible that the two or three legitimately fun moments the skills competition generates per year is the maximum that NHL players are collectively capable of, and spreading that out over a full weekend would just dilute the impact.
Bottom line: Hey, were we ever going to tell the NHL that literally nobody understands how the skills-competition scoring system works? No? OK, just checking.
The idea: Scrap the all-star game because you’ve shut down the season for a lockout
When in doubt, go back to the classics, right?
Pros: Hey, all those big-dollar second contracts aren’t going to artificially limit themselves.
Cons: Certainly none that we can think of, say NHL owners.
Bottom line: Wait, I’m being told this has already been penciled in for 2020–21.
The idea: Just get rid of the whole thing and be done with it
You don’t like all-star weekend? Then just skip it, keep the schedule going, and either finish the season early or work in a few extra days off along the way.
Pros: Who wouldn’t want to see the season end a little earlier? Remember, if we take the owners at their word over why they’re not going to the 2018 Olympics, the decision was at least partly about not disrupting the season:
So if the all-star weekend isn’t working, just scrap it and keep the schedule moving.
Cons: This feels more like throwing in the towel than fixing anything. And the players wouldn’t be thrilled about losing what is, for most of them, a much-needed weekend off.
Bottom line: There’s a certain cathartic appeal to going all nihilist and just salting the Earth on the entire all-star concept. But it feels like we could do better here.
The idea: A “Young Guns” all-star game
You remember the Young Guns, a.k.a. Team North America from last year’s World Cup? Bunch of 23-and-under kids, stole the show by being ridiculously fun, and ended up as basically the only thing anyone remembers from that tournament? Let’s turn the all-star weekend over to them.
Pros: Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews. Jack Eichel on a line with Nolan Patrick. And unlike the World Cup, you’d get all the young European stars, too, so Patrik Laine, David Pastrnak, Leon Draisaitl and friends get to join in the fun.
The World Cup young guns were all skill and speed, exactly the sort of game that the NHL should want to showcase at a marquee event. You wouldn’t get the same effort level in an all-star game, of course, but these guys are young enough that they’d probably want to put on a show. And since most of them are still on entry-level contracts, the cash bonus the NHL offers to the winning team might actually matter to them.
Cons: I’m not completely sure there is one. Sure, you’d lose out on the Crosbys and Ovechkins, but those guys don’t want to play in these things, anyway. The veterans have earned their weekend off. Let the kids have the spotlight, and spend a few days really selling the future of the sport.
Bottom line: Make it happen, NHL.