Saturday night, the NHL held their annual skills competition as their preview and prelude to their all star game. This year, the supportive, exciting, and enthusiastic crowd of Montreal hosted the event. But I could not hear them.
Any excitement in the arena was unable to be heard on television in one of the worst presentations of hockey I have ever witnessed. Do not get me wrong, I am not a critic of the All-Star festivities in general. In my opinion, the Skills competition is one of the best nights of the year. I kept the game on, but I was not happy about it.
I have never been a huge fan of the NHL’s TV contract with Versus, but for the most part, they have done an extremely impressive job presenting National Hockey League games to the public.
Last year’s skills competition in Atlanta was easily the best I have ever seen and one of the top rated. There is no one I spoke with who saw anything bad with the game, other than possibly the fastest skater competition. The brand new relay race, breakaway competition, and all of the old events, such as the accuracy shootout, the fastest skater, etc. The only negative people said was the change made to the fastest skater competition.
This year, they changed the competition around completely – for the worse. Perhaps with the recent inauguration of President Barack Obama, they felt they needed to change things up as well. However, as many know, change does not always lead to good results.
First up on the list of change: breakaway competition. What was the change? The fans voted the winner. Did the NHL not learn enough from the controversy over the All Star starter voting? Alex Ovechkin deserved to win, without question. I voted for him, too. But he did not do the best trick. He did the trick that would entertain the fans, which it did. He is a smart man, and was able to win based on knowing his audience; a couple million voters, as opposed to some judges on the ice.
Change number two: instead of giving the players a chance to shoot in the breakaway competition, they give them a minute to strut their stuff. Why? Pressure the players, make them perform their best stuff by giving them one or two shots. After one minute, I was bored.
Change number three: take away the relay race. Why did the NHL do this? The fans loved this portion of the competition, especially seeing goalies shoot from two hundred feet away. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Versus’ presentation of the Skills competition was nothing more than disgraceful. The crowd was unable to be heard. I heard one instance of cheering during the skills competition, which was before Alexei Kovalev took his minute during the shootout competition.
Some might say that it was simply Montreal fans being disrespectful, but I do not believe this is true. The crowd noises make any NHL event exciting. Without fans, the game is nothing. When Zdeno Chara broke the record for fastest shot by demolishing the puck at 105.4 miles per hour, the crowd was barely audible. If you watched last year’s competition, the crowd broke out in cheers after Chara blasted a shot just over 103.
The performances before the skills competition and all star game were questionable at best. The Phantom of the Opera-like organ Saturday night and the Cirque de Soleil presentation Sunday night reminded me why the NHL is the laughingstock of the four major sports. The NHL needs to book a rock concert, not acrobatics.
Then, as the All Star Game was starting, the national anthems were sung. The U.S. national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, was sung so disrespectfully, it was insulting. It seemed like the pop singer was making a joke of my country. Extending notes and adding “Woah” to random parts of the United States’ national anthem does not make it better; it embarrasses the singer and the NHL.
The only positive that I witnessed was Marc Savard being mic’d up. He was entertaining for the duration of both nights, and helped the announcers have fun.
However, even the announcers did not sound enthusiastic. Mike “Doc” Emrick seemed to be lacking the normal excitement he brings to the game.
Many fans were also disappointed with Versus’ decision not to show Commissioner Gary Bettman’s interview during the second intermission. As unpopular as he is, he is still the Commissioner, and much like the President of the United States, people want to hear him speak.
I am not sure what the NHL hopes to accomplish by changing every aspect of the game. Why does the league feel the need to get every major event sponsored? The Honda All Star Game? The Cisco hardest shot competition? The Gatorade elimination shootout? The Bridgestone fastest skater? True, the NHL wants to make money, but they should also hope to keep their dignity. Are we going to rename the trophy the Pepsi Stanley Cup?
This is a scary revelation that I had during the All Star weekend that was started during the Bridgestone Winter Classic, another corporate event. It is understood that the United States is in an economic crisis, but from what I hear, the NHL’s revenue streams are fine. Higher revenue streams are always important, because as former President John Ziegler has told me numerous times, the NHL is first a business and second an entertainment industry.
But nonetheless, the entertainment portion of the business must not be overshadowed by the economic side of the league. If corporate sponsorships take over the NHL, fans may start to leave, and that will ultimately take away from what the NHL wants: more fans, and more revenue. Based on revelations of this past All Star weekend, I believe the NHL has to think long and hard before they make changes to a good thing.
Alan Bass is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and the Community Leader for the NHL and Philadelphia Flyers’ section; a writer for Prohockeynews.com and Insidehockey.com, he is also the co-host of NHL 2Day, a weekly radio show on Youcastr.com. You can contact him at ALN424@aol.com.