Last night, after my daughter’s basketball practice and my girlfriend at night class, I cruised through the stations on the TV looking for something to watch. The Sixers had the night off and the Magic were smoking the Celtics (yes, I know Boston came back to win). Eventually, I stumbled upon the NHL’s All Star Draft. The fact that I had to discover this accidentally is only ONE of the things wrong with the NHL by the way; if a sports nut like me isn’t even aware of hockey’s all-star weekend festivities, I’d say there’s a much larger percentage of the population who isn’t even aware that hockey is being played period. Yes, I’m only a casual fan puckheads, but aren’t those the people the NHL needs to reach in order to increase popularity of the sport? But I digress.
Anyway, for the large percentage of sports fans that pay little mind to hockey – although admittedly in Philadelphia, hockey is actually popular – the NHL decided last year to try a new approach to constructing the teams for their All Star game. The NHL has tried various formats over the years other than the traditional East/West format, including Americas against the World, in the effort to boost ratings for the event. That outside the box thinking and willingness to try new ideas finally hit gold. The NHL All Star teams are chosen the same way children all over the world choose sides before playing their favorite sport: they choose two captains, and pick teams, alternating selections. This leads to all kinds of interesting developments, such as which players are the first and last picks, which players the captains tend to favor, and the strategy involved in putting together a winning roster, not just for the game but for the Skills Competition as well. Last night, the draft even had ethnic ramifications as captains Zdeno Chara and Daniel Alfredsson gravitated towards fellow Slovaks and Swedes, respectively, along with teammates. It’s a fantastic idea; not knowing who’s going to be on which team adds a bit of drama and suspense to the weekend, and likely fuels the players’ competitiveness as they try to prove why they should’ve been chosen by the other team.
It’s such a cool idea that it needs to be immediately hijacked by the NBA. The NBA All Star weekend has grown stagnant over the years; star players refuse to participate in the Saturday night Skills events, leaving us with three-point shootout champions such as Jason Kapono, Daquean Cook, and James Jones. The dunk contest has had a recent resurgence with memorable performances from Blake Griffen and Dwight Howard, but that only illustrates my point: these events need star players to become marquee events again. Last year’s All Star game had the highest ratings since 2003, when Michael Jordan last played in the game. Anyone else think those ratings got a boost from Griffen jumping over a car the night before?
The concept of captains choosing the All Star teams may work better for basketball than any other sport. Anyone who has ever hooped has had to pick teams, or stand anxiously waiting to be chosen for a run. We do it every Monday night in our weekly basketball game. I imagine it would be a little more interesting choosing between Lebron and Kobe, or Griffen and Durant, than trying to decide between the guy in his 60s who can shoot it but can’t run, or the guy in his 30s who will defend but can’t shoot. The name recognition of the players would make the event a much bigger deal; another problem for American sports fans is that they don’t know many of the foreign players that dominate hockey. Also, while hockey has rules that govern choosing players by position, basketball could do away with those restrictions. Let a team go big or small as they see fit – it would be just another fascinating part of the strategy involved in picking teams.
One of the few successful additions to the NBA All Star weekend over the years is the Friday night game between the Rookies and Sophomores. It features the league’s up and coming stars and creates a natural rivalry between players of different draft classes. So hold the All Star draft at halftime of the rookie game. The captains would be a player from the host team (this year Orlando’s Dwight Howard) and the previous year’s MVP (Chicago’s Derek Rose). If the host city has no All-Star or the MVP is the same player as the host, then the best player from the reigning champions would be chosen. (How fun would it be if Miami won the title and then endured an offseason of people wondering whether Dwayne Wade or Lebron James would be captain of the All Star team? The league would probably go soft and name them co-captains.) As host, Howard would get the first pick and then Rose would get the next two selections. They then alternate until a roster of 12 is chosen; but they have to keep in mind that players from the roster MUST compete in the All Star Saturday events as well. A point system would then keep be instituted so that each team is rewarded for its finish in every event, culminating with the most points being rewarded for a win in the game itself on Sunday.
Here’s the best part: the players would be playing for money. Each player on the losing team would have to donate $25,000 to a charity of choice of a player on the winning squad. This element would bring fire to game, as the players now stand to lose something, as well as support several charitable ventures in great way. Which NBA player will be dumb enough to complain about having to donate 25K to charity? That was a literal question by the way; someone will do it, it’ll just be one more fun thing on which fans can speculate. The money factor would also hopefully motivate players to participate in the events on Saturday.
As for the question to what would happen to the fan voting, my response is this: who cares? The fans in every single sport have proven time and time again that they don’t deserve to cast a vote to determine all-star teams. I don’t want to see the fans’ favorite players – I want to see the best players. Add a roster spot to each team and let the fans vote for that spot the way they do in baseball. Either that or let the fans choose the captain for the team opposing the host player. I understand the leagues’ efforts to involve the fans and draw activity to their websites (like The Home of The Thrill on Facebook and follow me @HomeofTheThrill on Twitter!!), but there needs to be a better way than allowing fans to vote injured or undeserving players to the All Star team.
Think of the possibilities this season. Who does Howard choose first? A potential future teammate like Kobe Bryant or Deron Williams? Or does he split up Lebron and DWade? Would Derek Rose choose the Miami combo, or go another direction and choose not to team up with his rivals in the East? Would Howard represent his team in the dunk contest, or send his first pick Lebron James? Or would they both compete, forcing the opposing team to concede the event and choose stronger shooters for the three-point contest? What if Howard was traded before the game and had to sacrifice his captaincy?
Thanks, NHL!! I knew you were good for something.
(Relax hockey fans, I kid. And to prove it, I’m going to put up a midseason hockey column, just for you.)