You know that feeling of hearing a new song that you like from an artist that you’re not sure that you like? The first run-through is filled with skepticism. As catchy as it is, you’re unwilling to admit that you enjoy it. Then you hear it again, and it’s like, well, shit, I guess even Post Malone can have a moment of clarity. That’s the NHL’s All-Star Weekend for me. I’m serious. It’s actually good. It might be the best of America’s four major pro sports.
I came to this realization Friday night as I sat transfixed at the skills competition and realized a year ago I sat at the same bar and similarly couldn’t take my eyes off it. A season ago, players tried to put together the best poker hand by whipping pucks at cards. This time around, they were knocking over surfboards, and a dunk tank lever was the final target. There was a golf challenge, too, and guys played a hole with a stick and a puck.
Granted the sound was off, and I have no idea what led Alexander Ovechkin’s son running the flying V with his dad and Sydney Crosby, but it seemed like everyone enjoyed the fan service. And that’s what All-Star weekends are really about.
What the NHL gets right
The formula that the NHL adopted — probably with some help from new-ish TV partner ESPN — is basically an X Games model. There are events happening constantly, and dead time is filled with pretaped segments.
This new trickshot, breakaway challenge has been awesome. Last year, a guy scored a goal with a blindfold on, and the Ovi, Ovi Jr., and Crosby moment could make the most bitter blogger smile. While I know very little about hockey, I know Crosby is highly polarizing, and he came off as likable. (He also was on the wrong end of the dunk tank.)
The competition itself was a 3-v-3 tournament that featured a ton of scoring and uptempo play. The NHL even found a way to give divisions meaning, at least for a few hours, by sorting the teams according to their sect. (Dylan Larkin led the Atlantic to the win.)
For a sport that has trouble getting out of its own way, this new funhouse approach to All-Star Weekend is as welcome as it is surprising.
Other leagues should try the NHL’s formula even if it won’t work
We’ve come to a point with the Pro Bowl that the entire weekend is a skills competition. It’s fun to watch Saquon Barkley play dodgeball. Yet, most of the big names don’t show up or opt-out or are in the Super Bowl (or, in Josh Allen’s case, on the golf course). And if they do show up, they’ll be playing anything but football.
The NBA has failed to fix the dunk contest for years, the three-point shootout was interesting before everybody turned into Glen Rice, and god only knows why the skills challenge still exists. (Wait, does it?) The best drama all weekend is when the captains pick teams, and we get to see who’s the last pick on the playground.
If it seems like the NHL is just throwing pucks at a wall (or a playing card or a surfboard or a putting green) to see what sticks, that’s exactly what’s happening. There are obvious variables for each league, and the move is to try a bunch of different stuff until you find, or stumble upon, what works.
It shouldn’t be this hard to make a gathering of all-stars entertaining. Maybe seven-on-seven will do it, or maybe put the QBs in sumo suits and have them block for the offensive linemen. I don’t know. Get creative.