It’s up to the players to make NHL All-Star game great

The Skills Competition has come a long way from the days of the hat and sunglasses by Alex Ovechkin. Now it's Wookie masks and mullet wigs as the NHL's stars put on a show for the fans at the event on Saturday.

NASHVILLE—It’s not about excellence. It’s about not being awful.

Strange, really, how over the years the NHL All-Star festivities, including the skills competition and the game itself, have become fingers-crossed events, with both those involved and onlookers imagining the worst and then trying to sidestep it.

They did that for the most part on Saturday night with the smiles-and-giggles skills competition, and maybe there’s something to be said in this context about the tradition and consistency of things like the hardest shot test and the fastest skater event, both of which have now been going on for a quarter-century and have some significant history to them.

Free Sunday: Users in Canada can watch the the 3-on-3 NHL All-Star tournament on Rogers NHL GameCentre Live.

Shea Weber is dominating the hardest shot after knocking off the champion, Zdeno Chara, bringing memories of the way Al Iafrate and Al MacInnis used to own the NHL’s version of the home run derby. It delivers the requisite “oooh, ahhhh” response as reliably as fireworks on Canada Day.

Dylan Larkin, meanwhile, gave everyone another reason to believe the Detroit forward might be the best young player in the game by racing to a fastest skating triumph just as a young Red Wing named Sergei Fedorov did back in 1990.

Along the way, Jaromir Jagr was admired by one and all, John Scott was supported, P.K. Subban delivered the requisite chuckles and, generally speaking, the night wasn’t a night to cringe. Having Music City so darn happy to have the NHL stars in town is providing just the right backdrop to a mini-holiday in the middle of a tough, grinding season in which Patrick Kane is soaring, Carey Price is absent, Dennis Wideman is facing internal discipline over a supposed assault on a linesman, the Florida Panthers have emerged as a powerhouse, the Canadian NHL teams all seem destined to miss the post-season and Connor McDavid is about to rejoin the party after having his rookie season short-circuted by injury.

Which now brings us to the game. Three-on-three. A mini-tournament. A new idea with no history and great hopes.

Could it work? Sure. Will it work? We shall see. What if it doesn’t work? Try something else.

The NHL is committed to an L.A. all-star game to celebrate it’s 100th anniversary, so it would really ease the minds of many tall thinkers in the New York offices if today’s three-game tourney produced happy reviews.

It doesn’t have to be excellent, just not awful, and sure, there’s a good chance that simply the novelty of three-on-three in the first season it’s being used to decide NHL games will be enough to carry the day. There could be some actual strategy at play here. The Pacific will have to overcome the adversity of being stuck with Scott and somebody – Jagr? Larkin? Johnny Hockey? – might do something terrific like Vince Damphousse did with his four-goal perforamance at the memorable 1991 all-star game in Chicago.

San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns skates back to the bench wearing a Chewbacca mask after competing in the breakaway challenge at the NHL hockey All-Star game skills competition Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns skates back to the bench wearing a Chewbacca mask after competing in the breakaway challenge at the NHL hockey All-Star game skills competition Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

It’s really all up to the players. We’ve received all kinds of answers on whether they’ll even try to deliver the goods today, but we’ve heard it all before. Being in Vancouver on Thursday for the CHL Top Prospects game was yet another reminder about the way in which an all-star game can be played, as opposed the minimalist way in which NHLers have been playing it for more than a decade.

You get that nobody wants to get hurt, and nobody does want that. But by swinging way to the other end of the spectrum and delivering a game in which nobody gets even gently bumped, delivers a piece of entertainment so divergent from what this sport is all about that it just invites criticism.

Almost to a man, the players are saying they believe three-on-three will enhance competitiveness, and now we’ll see. Having a division vs. division concept is intriguing, and you could cast your mind back and say, yeah, a game between the old Norris Division and the Patrick would have actually had a narrative to go with it.

Now? Well, few hockey fans could rattle off which team is in the Metropolitan and which is in the Central if pressed to do so, so it will be up to the players to provide some kind of identity to their teams in a very compressed time period.

Nashvillians, of course, are just so bloody grateful to have this event they’re going to be pleased with the outcome no matter what, and doubly so if Weber, James Neal, Roman Josi or Pekka Rinne emerges as the star of the day.

What the outside world will see and say could be another matter. Scott-apalooza will supposedly draw eyeballs, but that really seems a lot of Twitter-inspired nonsense. You can bet the game or games in which The Last of The Enforcers will be involved will include an effort by the opposing club to help him score a goal. The real all-star players have embraced him either as a fellow traveller or a symbol of rebellion against The Man, and it seems likely they’ll want to enhance his stature in some way before he returns to his hockey career on The Rock, hopefully never to bother us again with his peculiar version of hockey reality-think.

As it stands, the NHL game in general is under scrutiny for its nightly entertainment value, what with goals scored having shrivelled up yet again as the league (yet again) has failed to put offence ahead of defence and thus allowed defence to be up by four touchdowns. Again.

It was striking on Friday’s media day to hear netminders like Cory Schneider and Braden Holtby openly advocated reducing goalie equipment to enhance scoring while saying they don’t mind if save percentages drop from .930 to .890 as long as it happens to everyone.

Meanwhile, the league continues to either deny there’s an issue or obfuscate on the matter, which means it’s just delaying the necessary because anyone who doesn’t just blindly defend the game against criticism of any kind can see there just aren’t enough goals at the NHL level these days to let this wonderful sport breathe.

When you’ve got a league that insists all is well with the rules and the reality no matter the situation, you’re likely going to produce an all-star game today which will have one and all following the script proclaiming it to be a wonderful success.

But wouldn’t it be cool if it actually was? Wouldn’t it be cool today if NHL stars really got into it, dug down and delivered not just smiles and funny hats but some terrific hockey?

It would be way cool. It’s very possible and totally in the hands of these great athletes.

Beyond that, applauding excellence rather than appreciating the avoidance of awful-ness is something the NHL All-Star Game could really use.

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