Monday, January 26, 2009

Dull-Star Weekend

A little behind schedule, but here's some thoughts to share after an All-Star weekend.

The last time I remember actually enjoying an All-Star game was exactly 20 years ago. In 1989, the NHL All-Star game was held in Edmonton, and featured the exciting return of Wayne Gretzky after the big trade that sent him to Los Angeles in the summer. Re-united with Jari Kurri, it only took a minute and seven seconds for the dynamic duo to rekindle their magic and send the Oilers' fans into a frenzy. Kurri scored the opening goal of the game, assisted by the Great One, who eventually won the MVP Car and gave it to Dave Semenko. This was, of course, before he became evil.

I really liked the skills-competition when it first came out. It was fun, it was fresh, - it had a certain innocence to it. Nobody seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing, and it was interesting to watch the players fumble through the individual events while trying to keep their pride intact. Today, the skill's competition seems entirely contrived and pretentious. It seemingly takes forever, and all of the emphasis is on player interviews and gimmicks. There's very little "skill"on display actually, just glossy segues from one commercial spot to another. The whole thing feels artificial, hollow, and plastic, like celebrating Christmas at a shopping mall. You can almost see all the money changing hands behind the scenes, from one blue suit to another, handshakes and cheap smiles and even cheaper promises all along the way. Overspending on advertising that doesn't work, overspending on hockey players that don't score, overspending on sub-standard merchandise that you can get cheaper elsewhere, spend, spend, spending, until there's nothing left. Don't forget to keep reminding everyone how wonderful everything is. We can talk about "hard times", "economic downturns", and "unfair lease agreements" next week.

The first event at the Skills Competition was the Fastest Skater. I tried watching this with the sound down because I don't really need a play-by-play of a single player doing a lap of the ice. What is there to say? But then CBC didn't have an on-screen time clock for the player skating, just the time to beat, which made watching it useless. For any sport that requires a time-trial, you want to see the time as it's happening, not just to be told about it after. My eyes can't distinguish the speed of one player going around the ice from another unless they're going at the same time. If I can't see the clock and the time to beat, I can't see any drama! Being told the result after it's happened is just not the same.

In case anybody cares, Andrew Cogliano from the Oilers is the league's fastest skater.

Up next: The ridiculous Breakaway Challenge. A complete waste a time. A poor excuse to prostitute text-messaging, but at least they did away with the American Idol-style judging which was an even bigger disaster last year. This event is really stupid and pretentious and having the fans determine the winner really amounts to just a popularity contest. Getzlaf probably showed the most "skill" during the event - certainly more skill then wearing a fishing hat and carrying two sticks - but OV is the fan-favorite so he's declared the "winner" of the "challenge". For what it's worth, I thought Martin St. Louis had the best "routine", but like most people with an IQ above 20, I'm not about to waste my time and money text-messaging my useless opinion into cyberspace - that's what my blog is for! With that in mind, below is a clip of St. Louis' attempt to razzle-dazzle corporate sponsors.

Next up was the YoungStars game, a meaningless 3-on-3 exercise featuring the league's best rookies (minus Grabovski) versus the top NHL sophomores. I think I actually enjoyed this segment the most out of all the events, even though it is an incredibly dumb idea. I enjoyed it as a Leaf fan for two reasons - 1) Because it was fun to see Carey Price look so terrible and crappy, and 2) because I thought Luke Schenn looked great. Considering he's mostly a stay-at-home defenceman who's not supposed to have a lot of offensive skill, OLAS didn't look at all out of place or uncomfortable playing with the best of his class. Blake Wheeler, who had 4 of the Rookie's 9 goals, was named the game's MVP, but I personally thought Luke Schenn was the best player on the ice.

So, after the Fastest Skater contest, the Breakaway Challenge, the YoungStar's game, a couple hundred nonsensical highlights illustrating nothing, a thousand interviews revealing players are "just happy to be here and having a good time", and about a billion commercials, the skill's competition is already an hour and a half old and we're just getting to the third event - Tomas Kaberle's specialty - the Accuracy Shooting Contest. Tomas nails his first 2 shots but then it falls apart for him. Malkin is the winner of the contest, which seemed far less dramatic then the outcome last year. For one thing, Malkin didn't seem nearly as happy as Kaberle did when he won.

The hardest shot went to Zdeno Chara for the 3rd year in a row. I think Chara is awesome, and he may in fact be my favorite non-Leaf player right now. During the Toronto-Boston game last week, when Chara tied the game in the 3rd, I asked the gang over at Stanley Cup of Chowder if people were talking Chara for Hart in Beantown and the response was that people like Savard for the Hart and Chara for the Norris. Now I might be the one out to lunch here, but I think Zdeno Chara IS the Boston Bruins, especially when he's on the ice for 28 minutes and 54 seconds! like he was during their last game against Toronto.

The last event of the evening was the Elimination Shoot-Out, which reminded me of the WWF's Royal Rumble, except instead of having a new wrestler come out of the dressing room every minute, a new hockey player was sent back to the dressing room every minute. It kind of seemed to go on and on and on until finally there were just 3 players left; Shane Doan, Marc Savard, and Milan Hejduk. Then all 3 players missed their next shots - twice in a row! So even the best shoot-out specialists in the NHL are only good for 3 out of 5 in situations that directly decide who wins and who loses. Awesome. Finally Doan scored to win the competition, and since he was the only one there who had his daughter supporting him at rinkside, I guess it made for some compelling, "feel good" TV. It was a "special moment" for the Doan family, but I'm not sure it would have been for anybody else.

You have to feel for the goaltenders a little bit. It's weird that the NHL does nothing to recognize these uniquely popular and marketable players during the skills competition, but instead just uses them as potato sacks to stand between the posts, while the "Stars of the Game" put on a "show". Why isn't there an award to the goalie that carries the highest save percentage through all of these events? Or some sort of rapid-fire exercise where they have to try and stop 30 shots in 30 seconds? There should be something for the goalies. The NHL Skills Competition treats them like they're 2nd class athletes, which is really too bad.

So finally, on Sunday, the All-Star Game was held, and predictably, both teams did their best to keep the score close, until finally, they went to a shoot-out. Twenty-two goals in 60 minutes of hockey, yet not one of these superstars can score in the last 3 minutes and 39 seconds of regulation plus five more minutes of 4-on-4 overtime. Sure. And professional wrestling's not fixed either. Final score: 12-11, Kovalev and Ovechkin scoring the decisive goals.

I can't think of a single moment in the game that really stood out as exciting or compelling. It was fun to see Carey Price suck just as bad in the first period as he did in the Young Stars game, but other then that, there wasn't much to cheer about from a Leafs' perspective. Kaberle enjoyed 20 minutes of ice-time and was mostly paired up with Chara. He did pick up 2 assists, but still finished the night as a minus 3.

Perhaps the most compelling moment of the entire weekend came on Saturday before the skills competition, when Vinny Lecavalier was introduced to the loudest ovation that any player recieved, even louder then Kovalev. It also seemed contrived, but there was some genuine emotion there too, coming from the fans in the building, and from the player in the spotlight. For all the interviews, for all the photo-ops, for all the "showcasing" and hype, the most meaningful moment of the entire weekend belonged to Lecavalier and the Montreal fans, and the future relationship implied by their ovation, and the sincere emotional response visible in Vinny's eyes.

Thanks to the Olympics next year, there won't be another All-Star game or Skills Competition until 2011, scheduled to be in Phoenix, but the state of that franchise makes things uncertain, so who knows?

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