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Evolution of the All-Star Game

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The NHL All-Star fan ballot was launched late last week. While not everyone's a fan of the all-star game, I get excited for it every year it happens. As the week goes on, I'll be releasing a series of entries relating to the All-Star Game, but first, I'll give some context. It's the evolution of the all-star game.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Benefit Games

The idea of an All-Star game first came up a few times in the early 20th century, in the form of benefit games. In 1908, after the death of Stanley Cup winning Montreal Wanderers cover-point Hod Stuart in a diving accident, the Wanderers played against a team of players from the other Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association clubs, picked by fans in a contest. It's not hard to see why nobody thought this idea would catch on as a regular thing, as the All-Stars were beaten handily, 10-7.

Flash forward to partway through the 1930s. During a game between Toronto and Boston during the 1933/34 season, Maple Leafs forward Ace Bailey received a devastating hit from Bruins defenceman Eddie Shore. The Leafs participated in an all-star game against the NHL All-Stars to raise money for Bailey and his family, the Leafs winning 7-3. During the 1936/37 season, Canadiens star forward Howie Morenz suffered a devastating shattered leg and died of a heart attack months later while in hospital. The Canadiens and Montreal Maroons teamed up against the NHL All-Stars, losing 6-5. After the death of recently-retired player Babe Seibert, the Canadiens, with whom he played his last three seasons and was set to coach for 1939/40, played against the NHL All-Stars, losing 5-2.

The All-Star Game is Born

Ace Bailey, for whom the NHL's first benefit game was held, wanted the NHL to have an all-star game every year. It finally happened to open the 1947/48 season. With the exception of 1948/49, which was held in Chicago, each All-Star Game was hosted by the defending Stanley Cup champion. Each game saw the defending Stanley Cup champion playing against an all-star team built around the previous season's post-season all-star lineup, excluding members of the Cup champion team of course. The only exception to this format was the 1951/52 and 1952/53 seasons, when a team of the NHL's First Team All-Stars and players from the American clubs faced a team consisting of the NHL's Second Team All-Stars and players from Montreal and Toronto. Both were low-scoring games that drew enough criticism to have the NHL revert back to this format.

A Tale of Two Divisions

For the 1966/67 season, it was decided to move the All-Star Game to mid-season. From this point on, the All-Star Game came after the end of football season and before the start of baseball season. The All-Star vs Cup Champion format continued into 1967/68, but problems with this format surfaced. Specifically, a team's roster changes between the Stanley Cup Final and midseason the next year, and players can get better or worse in that time. For 1968/69, separate All-Star teams were created for the East Division (mostly Original Six clubs), and the West Division (mostly 1967 expansion clubs). The format's second year, 1969/70, was the genesis of the game's host rotating among the NHL's member cities. For a very long time, the East/West format was the one used by the NHL. While there were realignments, such as the four-division alignment of 1974/75, the geographical alignment of 1981/82, and the six-division alignment of 1998/99, and re-namings such as the Wales/Campbell renaming in 1974 and the Eastern/Western renaming in 1993, the format remained intact, with a handful of exceptions. The genesis of fan-voting was 1985/86, when fans could vote for their preferred starting lineups. The NHL Hockey Ops department would pick all but the top three forwards, top two defencemen, and top goaltender from each conference.

The Exceptions

During the 1978/79 season, the All-Star game was replaced by a best-of-three Challenge Cup, contested in New York City by the Soviet Team and an NHL All-Star team made up entirely of Canadians, save for three token Swedes. The NHLers won the first game 4-2 while the Soviets won games two and three 5-4 and 6-0. The All-Star Game was replaced again during the 1986/87 season, when a team of NHL All-Stars faced off against the Soviets for Rendez-Vous '87 in Quebec City. The NHLers won the first game 4-3 while the Soviets won game two 5-3. The next exception wasn't as great. The 1995 All-Star Game was cancelled due to a lockout.

North America vs the World

Several years after the Eastern and Western Conferences got their current names, in 1997/98, the first major departure in All-Star format in decades came: a team of players from Canada and the United States against a team of players from the rest of the world. The following year, fan voting went online. The format was interesting, and is in fact the format of the first all-star game I remember anything about, but didn't exactly stick. It was used in only five seasons. The 2002/03 season restored the East/West format.

Post-lockout

The East/West format continued after the lockout. As part of the 2004 CBA, it was agreed that there wouldn't be an all-star game in years the NHL sent players overseas for the Olympics. In 2006, 2010, and 2014, there wasn't an all-star game. The online all-star ballot online really rose to prominence during this period, with unrestricted voting and the elimination of paper ballots in 2006/07. For 2008/09, the NHL instituted a rule to forceencourage players to play in the All-Star Game, suspending a player for one game either before or after the All-Star weekend for players who don't participate.

Democrazy

With the NHL going fully digital with its all-star voting, it has opened up to weird campaigns and scandals. In 2006/07, a Sabres fan organized a write-in (vote for a player not on the ballot) campaign to get depth defenceman Rory Fitzpatrick in as a starter. Done in part to highlight problems with unrestricted voting, partly to reward a sort-of poster boy for hard workers overlooked come accolade time, it nearly succeeded. During the 2009 vote, the NHL was forced to add CAPTCHA security (type in a displayed word so the site knows you're not a machine) after an automated ballot stuffing incident that resulted in four Canadiens starting for the Eastern Conference, including Mike Komisarek, a player who didn't really deserve to be there.

YoungStars and SuperSkills

From 1990 to 2001, the NHL had a "Heroes of Hockey" alumni game. For 2001/02, the All-Star weekend began instead featuring a game of rookies versus rookies. Called the "YoungStars" game, the games had shorter periods and smaller lineups.  The games usually featured the occasional sophomore and third-year player, and the veteran all-star goalies were used in 2007/08 along with a shortened games, but the format remained mostly intact for its entire existence. The All-star weekend has also included a set of mini-game style events on the eve of the main game. Called the "SuperSkills" Competition, its events are accuracy shooting, hardest shot, fastest skater, breakaway challenge, and the elimination shootout, with past years including a goalie challenge, puck control relay, and breakaway relay. The YoungStars game was retired for 2010/11, the rookie skaters named to participate in the SuperSkills events.

The Fantasy Draft

In 2010/11, the format changed to one reminiscent of a pickup game. As in years before, fans would vote in a starting lineup of three forwards, two defencemen, and one goaltender. Hockey Ops picks the remaining players, and a fantasy draft is done, with two captains alternating picks. This coming game, 2014/15, will be the third year under this format.

This is the first of several posts about the all-star game. Check back later today when I go in-depth into the current fantasy draft format, as well as the SuperSkills events.