Friday, January 30, 2009

NHL All-Star Fixings

I know, it’s a week old, but give me a break. I’m still trying to figure out this whole blog thing. It’s a conglomeration of everything. It’s like going home with someone at 2:30am thinking they are gorgeous and waking up at 8:30am wondering who roofied you. You never know what you’re going to get. Today you get hockey. Week-old hockey.

The NHL held its All-Star festivities last weekend in Montreal as the Canadiens celebrate their 100th Anniversary. The Canadiens are the oldest continuously operating hockey franchise and the only one to exist before the NHL was founded. That means the NHL had to have some awesome activities planned for the weekend, right? Incredible displays of athleticism in arguably the most difficult sport on earth, right? No. Not really.

Before the All-Star game on Sunday, broadcast by Versus (which we’ll get to), the NHL had its Saturday night skills competition. Among the contests, the NHL rewards its “fastest-skater”, most accurate shooter, its hardest shooter, it’s most creative “scorer”, and it’s best breakaway player.

While the hardest shot competition seems to be the fan-friendliest, the creative scorer/breakaway event seemed to garner the most hype coming into the night. The NHL apparently wanted to replicate the NBA’s version of the slam-dunk competition with their brightest, youngest stars.

One guy ended his approach by swinging his stick like a baseball bat, at a puck flying through the air. Another guy kept bouncing the puck off his head, then trying to fire it in the net. The NHL’s most dominant player, Alexander Ovechkin, wore a Tilley-style hat with a Canadian flag, sunglasses and two sticks as he simply blasted a shot at the goalie.

It wasn’t that exciting. Certainly not anywhere near the excitement level of this.

The hardest-shot competition was won for the third year in a row by Boston’s Zdeno Chara. As nice as it is that his win earned $24,000 for charity, the competition itself was totally lackluster. When a few other guys are shooting against a guy who is 6’11 on ice skates, they should get more than 2 tries at the net. That’s where I find my faults with the NHL. They have some of the most talented, young athletes in the world, marketable from all over the planet, and they manage to field a boring competition. Stealing the inspiration from ESPN’s Bill Simmons, the master of maximizing All-Star weekend awesomeness, here’s a few ideas to perk up the NHL’s game and bring the game back, even more than it already is.

1) Fastest Skater Competition – 10 guys, 2 teams. West vs. East. Each squad picks its fastest skaters and has them do a relay race. Players start on the same blue line, right next to each other. People like speed skating in the Olympics. Difference is, some of these guys are 6’3 220 lbs. Granted there is an injury risk and the chance that a guy might ram into a goal post, but if you want the audience captivated, this is the way to go (maybe un-hinge the posts and move them slightly inward). No stop-watches, just good old fashioned relay races like when you were a kid. The first two guys will finish once they cross the blue line past the starting one. On the opposite side of the finishing blue line/opposite side of the ice, the next two racers will be queued, ready to take off. 10 guys, fastest skaters, whipping around the ice, avoiding nets and looking cooler than Apollo Ohno. It’s high quality entertainment.

2) Creative Scorer/Breakaway Contest – The NHL wants a marquee event during their weekend festivities to generate buzz like a slam-dunk competition. That’s difficult. Partly because there are limitations to what a guy can do with a hockey stick, ice skates, a small puck, and a sheet of ice. It was nice of the NHL to feature young stars Patrick Kane, Ryan Getzlaf, and Alexander Ovechkin among others. Problem is, the event was totally lackluster, with the superstars being mostly shutout by some random goalie from minor-league hockey. It could have been Sly Stallone getting in shape for his new movie for all we know. I suggest removing the goalie all-together. The goal is to highlight stick-handling and skills. Instead, put an all-star defenseman out there. Without a stick. 6 offensive players, 6 defenders. It’s fun to imagine Alexander Ovechkin lining up in the end zone faceoff circle, skating up the ice towards Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester, lined up at center ice with no stick. The offensive player can still showcase his moves and stick handling abilities, while the defender showcases his skating skills. Beating the defender will still be difficult, and the offensive player still has to put the puck in the net after he beats his man. Each guy has 3 chances, 2 minutes to complete the whole thing. Tell me that’s not more intriguing than Alexander Ovechkin wearing a cheesy hat while being stonewalled by some 12-year old Canadian. These guys are competitors and beating a “fellow All-Star defenseman” will hopefully bring out the fire in them.

3) Crazy Breakaway Elimination Shootout Deathmatch – This was the final event of the night and it was by far the most confusing (probably because Versus’ coverage was being run by a seventh grader with ADHD). What seemed like 150 skaters endlessly shooting pucks at random goalies ended with Phoenix’ Shane Doan winning the competition. In reality, 36 All-Star skaters faced the 4 All-Star goalies, in a breakaway shootout competition. If you scored you stayed on the ice. If the goalie stopped you, you were sent to the locker room. And by sent, I mean banished. As if you were diseased. Maybe it was Versus’ coverage, maybe it was the weird locker room camera. Pardon me for feeling like there had to be a guy, dressed in a hooded cloak, standing on the ice, pointing with one arm towards the locker room, while yelling “Banished!” at the guys who didn’t score. It was weird. Some guys took their pads off in the locker room, some guys tried to walk back towards the ice, some guys got on their cell phones. What a weird way to end an all-star’s night. The competition itself dragged on and on. Goalies couldn’t stop early shots, then made a rally late in the contest, before Doan finally won. The thing about the competition is Doan isn’t even the best breakaway player on his own team. He’ll be the first to admit that. Guys got tired, scared of banishment, and goalies would try every four shots. That eventually led to Doan winning. To juice this up and showcase goalies skills, why not make this a 2-on-1 event? One-on-one saves are neat and all, but highlight-reel saves often come from goalies sliding across the ice, kicking a blocker in the air, swinging a stick while diving a different direction, so on and so on. Pair up skaters at the opposite blue line, send them down the ice and make them shoot or pass and make the goalie make a save. If they score, keep them on the ice. If they don’t, banish them to Narnia. If you’re going to send an endless stream of skaters down the ice, towards the goalie, team them up to save time and make it more interesting. If it sounds impossible for the goalie, then make the skaters use opposite hand sticks. It’ll be fun.

All these competitions need incentives. Offer the individual winners $15,000 for the charity of his choice. Fans can vote on the best goalie performance of the night in the breakaway deathmatch, and reward that goalie $25,000 for his charity. Just some little things to perk up the weekend festivities.

As for the existing competitions, they are mostly ok. Hardest Shot is always a crowd pleaser but you have to give the competitors more than 2 shots. It takes one shot to get a feel for the competition, a second shot to rip a good one, and a third to really launch a nice slap-shot. The fact that a dominating 6’9” Slovak competes in the event is reason enough to allow at least 3 shots. Allow these guys the chance to showcase their power. Hell, maybe even let them use the old 3” curved sticks, simply for the hardest shot competition. The accuracy event seems fine. Sometimes it’s hard to see if the guy actually hit the target, but it’s always amazing to see the puck blast a perfect hole through the center of the Styrofoam target. And while I was busy yelling about the TV coverage of the game, I missed most of the Rookie vs. Sophomore Challenge. 3-on-3 hockey and five-minute periods sounds pretty good though. It’s just enough of a changeup to hold the night together and showcase some of the young talent that isn’t quite ready to make the all-star leap just yet.

Lastly, in terms of making the leap, I apologize to all of you who stood at the windowsill wanting to leap off because of Versus’ TV coverage. I’ve never been in a room where so much disgust was directed towards the ability of a TV network to continually screw up coverage of an event. What sucks is that the NHL is a phenomenal sport, relegated to the mercy of sub-standard network coverage. When ESPN chose not to match the 3-year/$200 million offer for the NHL’s U.S. cable TV rights in 2005, Versus took over. Versus, formerly the Outdoor Life Network/Lance Armstrong TV, holds the NHL TV deal through the 2010-11 season. NBC has a deal with the NHL to do a small amount of games every year, including the Winter Classic, but they simply need more. They should, at the very least, carry the NHL All-Star game and All-Star festivities. But, since they aren’t and won’t, at least for a little bit, to prevent us all from going mad, here are a few tips to help Versus out.

- Goalie Cams. NBC does it occasionally. Just like catcher masks w cameras, the goalie masks need cameras. Seeing the action from their point of view is worth it. Plus you can put little wind-shield wiper blades on them to get the ice dusting off.

- Super Slow Mo Cameras. I and my buddies’ second biggest complaint of the night was lack of awesome camera shots. You know how FOX breaks down a hitter’s swing with super-slow mo instant replay? Why not do it for hockey? Place a camera on the ice for the Hardest Shot Competition. Face it at the point of contact between the stick and the puck and watch the stick bend. It will be awe-inspiring. Almost as awe-inspiring as when these guys break $300 sticks.

- Better Camera Angles. Numerous times during the night, Versus somehow managed to cut to side shots of the players approaching the goal, only to hear the puck go flying off a board or post and be lost forever into banishment. Like the NBA slam-dunk competition, Versus had a cameraman on skates following the players on their approach to the goal, but they never showed his angle. It’d be much more beneficial to the viewer to see his perspective and see just how wide the shot was from the net or just how spectacular the goalie’s glove save was. *Speaking of camera-wielding ice skaters, how does one get that job? Does Versus tell their cameramen they have to learn how to skate or they get fired? Or are the cameramen a level below NHL referees? NHL referees are those guys that were really good skaters but not quite good enough stick-handlers to make it to the NHL. That and the fact that they are the same size as Bonnie Blair. That means Versus’ cameramen are smaller than Bonnie Blair and handle a hockey stick like I do. Right? Sorry.*

- Competent Program Directors. This was the biggest complaint of the night between all of my buddies watching the skills showcase. At one point in the night it became evident that players were tripping over the triangular sponsor signs on the ice. They’d skate in on the goalie, fire a shot, turn and skate off, and trip over these signs. Problem was, Versus managed to never catch one guy falling. Never (thus no video). Do you know how entertaining it would be to see these huge All-Stars, the most nimble of nimble, falling on the ice because they didn’t see one of the numerous signs lying on the ice all night long? Marc Savard, the on-ice All-Star correspondent for Versus even started making comments about how ridiculous it was getting. Not once, did Versus manage to show it happen or replay it. When they did replay something, they managed to miss the next two shots or the next goal or the next save. Totally awful.

I could go on and on about it but it’d be a waste of time. You get the point. The potential is there, but it is going to take some more work. The NHL is still recovering from their strike shortened season. Breaking in to the NFL, MLB, NBA big three is difficult but it can easily be done. The players, from Crosby and Ovechkin to Malkin and Iginla, the skill is all in place. If these guys can keep some of their teeth in, they’ll even be marketable to the public! These certainly aren’t the only ways to improve All-Star Saturday. Just a few. Hockey is a fun game that many people can enjoy. Plus, go to any NHL game and you’ll find TONS of hot chicks. People like hockey. Chicks like hockey. If that’s not a good enough reason to improve the NHL even more, I don’t know what is. At the very least, maybe we can get a girlfriend out of the whole thing.

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