Saturday, March 19, 2011

NHL All-Star Game: Where Fantasy Hockey Meets Real Hockey

Sidney_Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, USA

Player/Fantasy GM Sidney Crosby? (Image via Wikipedia)

With the annual New Year’s Day Winter Classic, the NHL aims to “take the game back to it’s roots.”? Hockey played outside in the middle of winter, just as it always was growing up for many players.? The event has been a television ratings bonanza for commissioner Gary Bettman and the league, and the 2011 edition between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals should be one of the most-watched NHL games in history.

The Winter Classic success left the NHL wondering what to do with their dud of an All-Star Game that typically comes and goes with little fanfare and drew a paltry 0.8 overnight rating in 2009.? Solution: Take the game back to its roots.

Leading up to the January 30 All-Star Game in Raleigh, NC, players will now draft their peers to participate in a glorified ‘pond hockey’ game.? The NHL-NHLPA press release explains more:

* From a group of 100 players on the ballot, fans will vote for their top six All-Stars by position without regard to the Conference in which the player plays. Fans will also have the ability to write-in a player of their choice.

* The three forwards, two defensemen and one goalie receiving the most votes will be named NHL All-Stars.

* As with previous All-Star games, the remaining 36 All-Stars will be named by the NHL Hockey Operations Dept. for a total of 42 All-Star players (3 goalies, 6 defensemen and 12 forwards per team).

* After the 42 NHL All-Stars have been selected, two captains will be chosen per team by the players.

* On Friday, January 28, 2011, a fantasy draft event will be held in Raleigh with all 54 NHL players (42 All-Stars and 12 rookies) during which the captains will draft the remaining members of their respective teams.

* First selection in the draft will be determined by coin flip and selections will continue on an alternating basis.

* Each team will be required to select three goalies, six defensemen and 23 forwards in any order they choose.

The NFL and MLB have tinkered with all-star game dynamics in recent years in an attempt to create more buzz, but the NHL is the first to embrace the enormous popularity of fantasy sports by having captains select their own squads.

A live televised draft will attract the casual fan (just like the Winter Classic) and has the potential to be a wildly entertaining event that will create dozens of storylines and subplots around the game itself.

Will captains select teammates and countrymen while avoiding their bitter rivals?? Will they draft goaltenders early to give their team the best chance at winning?? How will the draft-day snubs feel and react?

“It would be fun, but there could be a little bit of pressure,” Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby said of his potential role as team captain.? “Guys, I’m sure, would all want to be picked, but you’d have a pretty good pool to pick from.”

Whether the format sticks long-term is almost irrelevant.? With the NHL’s current television deal expiring in the offseason, Bettman needs to play every card in his hand to boost ratings – short of hand-picking the Stanley Cup finalists himself.

“The goal of the All-Star format change was designed to make the game more fun for everyone involved,” said Brendan Shanahan, Vice President of hockey and NHL business development.? “By giving the players more input on team selection, as well as skills competition matchups, we feel the 2011 NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft will inject more excitement and intrigue into all the events surrounding All-Star weekend.

Unfortunately, the NHL and players association are actively trying to remove one common element of any pond hockey or playground pickup game.? Says Craig Custance of the Sporting News: “League and NHLPA still considering ways to make sure there’s not a last guy standing during [All-Star Game] selection. Maybe group picks at end.”

Is it really possible to hurt the feelings of an all-star?

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