Monday, January 30, 2012

Getting It Right

I really enjoyed this year's NHL All Star Game. I KNOW, I'M AS SURPRISED AS YOU. But really, I think the NHL has figured out what these things are about while the other major leagues are still flailing. What are they about? It's a simple sentence: "THIS IS ALL BULLSHIT, SO LET'S JUST GO OUT THERE AND HAVE A GOOD TIME."

All All Star Games, Pro Bowls, whatever, are just spectacle, or at least should be. They're excuses to put a bunch of famous players all on the same team, and that's all they need to be. Now, that's a fundamentally gimmicky concept...but that's okay. The regular season and the playoffs can be played straight. Set this weekend aside for just the fun.

It really feels like that's what the NHL has done. The teams are picked playground style, with captains going back and forth to pick guys to fill out their rosters. The most popular event of the weekend was the skills competition, where guys dressed in costumes and brought props. Teams are split up, so you can see forwards going up against their own regular season goalies (As we saw in the first goal of the evening). Hell, goalies are mic'ed up so that the broadcasters can hockle them during the action (or, in Lundqvist's case, give them warning when a scoring threat starts his shift).

The players are just out there goofing around and trying to do big, flashy plays. The scores get ridiculously high. Even the fourth line sounds like a Justice League roster. Drake sang between periods, for some reason.

In other words, the NHL embraced the idea that this was just a gimmick, and decided to pile a couple more gimmicks on top of it. That only worked, of course, because the ASG doesn't count for anything, and everyone acknowledges that. But god help me, it did work. It was big and goofy, and just fun.

Baseball, of course, is still mired in the idea that the ASG should count, to the extent that the new CBA requires players to either show up or get special dispensation from the Commissioner's office. This is nonsense, and the home field advantage rule is nonsense on stilts (why should two completely different teams get to decide that, exactly?). The ASG is a bunch of big name stars all on the field at once. DON'T OVERSELL THIS, GUYS.

The Pro Bowl certainly embraces that it doesn't matter, but the NFL forgets to make it fun, considering you end up with like, the 12 best QB in the league starting. It doesn't help that the two teams going to the Super Bowl obviously don't participate. But biggest problem is probably the sport itself- football plays are just too structured and rigid to generate the kind of flash and spectacle needed to make the Pro Bowl fun. Maybe Tebow changed that? I don't know, I didn't bother.

The bottom line is, any ASG is fundamentally a gimmicky spectacle, and all leagues would be wise to embrace that. Yes, players won't try as hard, and won't want to risk injuries. That's okay, embrace that. Let them just try to throw out a bunch of flashy bullshit, let them try to just act out on their petty rivalries or nutty theories. The NHL seems to get that, and good for it.

Of course, the reason the NHL gets it is that it's a second tier league, so it can afford to play around a bit more. It's got to try a lot more gimmicky stuff to drum up any interest. And the other edge to that sword is that the league ends up looking amatuerish in other ways. I was at the gym when the ASG started yesterday, but didn't quite know it, because the NHL app on my iPhone did not have the game time on it ANYWHERE. But for now, it's making the NHL try harder on it's big events. And that's making them a lot more fun.


  1. I would say the NBA All-Star Weekend also fits into this. I've watched NBA All-Star games that actually had some amazing, entertaining moments, particularly in the late 90s watching a prime-aged Jason Kidd making passes that video game makers don't even know how to code, or David Robinson going to block Shaq on a fast break dunk attempt and literally getting bowled ass over tea-kettle.

    Maybe it has something to do with hockey and basketball being motion/flow games? We all know football is extreme violence punctuated by committee meetings, but even baseball has a structure and punctuation.

    I think it also helps in basketball and hockey (as opposed to football) that they can be played as non-contact sports. You can still play hockey and basketball at a high octane level without the body blows. If Kevin Durant is coming down the lane to dunk, Dwight Howard might put a body on him in the regular season (definitely in the playoffs) but can just let that go here. The fouls in basketball and the penalties in hockey are already built in to prevent the excesses. Yes, Hockey is more physical than basketball, but you still can't slash or trip or hook. Football though has no choice, every play you have to hit somebody. The only way to avoid injury in the Pro Bowl is to take your foot off the gas. In hockey you don't have to slow down, you just make the choice not to board this guy. Instead you go in there and, you know, actually stick battle for the puck rather than knock the guy over.

    Anyway, I think those are structural factors in support of the NBA and NHL just having a natural edge in this regard. But you can understand the impulse in wanting to see at least one dream game every season. As entertaining as it is to see Rose and Howard's teams battle the Heat, everyone has that 12 year old, I played NBA Live 95 impulse to say "well yeah, but what if we put Rose and Howard ON the Heat, and swapped out Bosh for Blake Griffin? That would be teh greetest!"

  2. Another factor may be the fan culture that supports the sports and sends players into them. Basketball has spawned playground ball, pick-up games, and the And One movement. Two of these have you calling your own fouls, and And One completely eschews the rules of the game as long as what you're doing looks cool. The NBA gave us NBA Jams, where 2 on 2 ball features literally flaming dunks from the three point line. The NFL gave us Blitz, where you actually suplex someone before leg dropping them. Football is inherently violent, and baseball is a purist sport that you can't even play without 8 friends unless you want to use ghost runners.