The NHL has instated a rule effective this season that will prevent players on injured reserve or in the American Hockey League from being voted for in the upcoming NHL All-Star Game fan vote. Many are up in arms over this, as John Scott’s appearance was a highlight of not just the All-Star weekend, but the entire season.
Now I can understand all this, but I disagree.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past while, you will know that every January, barring seasons that include NHL player participation in the Olympics, the NHL holds an All-Star Game in which nearly three dozen of the best players in the NHL play in a game that, as far as regular season standing and playoff implications are concerned, is completely meaningless.
In the latest attempt to reinvigorate this concept that is beyond stale in many people’s eyes, the format was changed to a four-team mini-tournament of teams representing each division. Rather than vote in three forwards, two defencemen and one goaltender, the fan vote was changed to be a vote for each division’s captain. For the Pacific Division, the choice was Arizona Coyotes winger John Scott.
I believe, and suspect many others as well, that this began simply to spite a league many have a love-hate relationship with, at the expense of someone considered a decent guy. It quickly went from sticking it to the NHL at a player’s expense to an honest, even noble effort to give a player, whose line of work inherently means a fast-impending retirement, a day in the limelight and an unforgettable experience.
Scott not only led the Pacific Division in votes, but the entire NHL by a country mile. Not long after, in what many suspect to be the NHL colluding with its teams, Arizona traded Scott to Montreal, which promptly demoted him to the AHL, which would mean he’s ineligible to participate. Epic backlash ensued, and the NHL relented. Scott had his unforgettable night and it was the most successful All-Star Game in decades.
Despite all the good that’s come out of it, the NHL views the whole thing as black mark, and has instated rules that a player on injured reserve or currently on assignment in a minor league is ineligible to be voted for in the fan vote, barring conditioning stints. That isn’t exactly a restrictive rule, as there are plenty of players of Scott’s ilk who are unlikely to be demoted. And they will in all likelihood clean up in the fan vote because screw the NHL, that’s why.
In spite of my own minimal support for the John Scott vote, I will not be supportive of any bid to repeat such a moment.
What is the Point of an All-Star Game?
The reason the NHL has been so quick to tweak the format of the All-Star Game, as well as why people cared so little for the event as to vote for a card-carrying face-puncher as a division captain, is because for pretty much every hockey fan, the All-Star Game is boring. The Skills Competition has entertainment value, but the game itself is teams of premier point-getters blowing each other out with minimal defensive play and non-existent physicality.
Part of the reason for the lack of anything, aside from a goal total that would make a 1982 game jealous, is that the game doesn’t have any impact. Nobody moves up in the standings, nobody gets better odds of home-ice advantage in the playoffs. So why bother?
I myself have always thought the purpose of the All-Star Game was obvious. It’s not the result of the game that matters, it’s the game itself. The point is that players who usually play on a team with a typical level of talent for the NHL are now playing with each other. The point is the collection of talent, your annual fantasy league made reality. Looking for an injection of meaning ignores the main reason sports leagues have All-Star Games to begin with: just to see upper-echelon players on the same field of play at the same time.
One could argue that it’s unnecessary to heap even more praise on these star players for a meaningless game, but then again, nobody would make the same argument against a Winter Classic alumni game. And what’s that? Players whose legend as elite players of their day is set in stone, playing a meaningless exhibition game while having even more said about how great they are? Aside from the players being retired, what’s the difference?
What is an All-Star?
The point of an All-Star Game is to see a bunch of All-Stars under the same roof playing the same game, but what constitutes an All-Star? If I may be so bold, I would like to take a crack at defining one.
The typical profile of an All-Star is someone who gets a lot of goals and points. That makes sense, doesn’t it? I like to take a bit more liberal of an approach though. Most often, NHL All-Star Games neglect defensive contribution. I’m not talking about shot-blocking; I mean the ability to reduce the opposition's offensive opportunities. Think a forward like Andrew Cogliano or a defenceman such as Niklas Hjalmarsson. They don’t score a lot, but contribute in a major way defensively. They get overlooked in All-Star selection because they’re less flashy and marketable, but it’s a big part of the game that they really excel at.
But I take defining an All-Star further: talented cult favourites. I wouldn’t consider either Zemgus Girgensons or Leo Komarov to be All-Stars based on talent alone. Despite that, they’re competent players with diverse skill sets, ones beloved by fans. The former led the 2015 fan vote, otherwise dominated by the Chicago Blackhawks, based on his Latvian countrymen coming out in full force to get him in. The latter was picked by the selection committee, but he stood out with hard work and physicality in a career offensive season on a Maple Leafs team inspiring little fan enthusiasm otherwise. Girgensons and Komarov aren’t key players, but nor are they mere role players. They’re decent players with the weight of their respective teams’ fan bases behind them, and that makes them every bit a star as the players they shared All-Star ice with. But for those cult players, the talent still has to be there. Both players came close to 40 points in their All-Star seasons. John Scott didn’t, and whichever plug gets voted in this season won’t either.
Voting for a Plug
There are a number of reasons someone would want to vote for a similar fourth-line player despite the general idea of an All-Star Game being for elite players. Most obvious is that the elite players are blasé to whole thing, while a player like John Scott soaked up the experience and went at it with gusto. But it’s meant to be an easy-going thing, a pat on the back for the talented players that earn it through their on-ice contribution. Even for the fan-favourites, it’s about collecting great players, not great guys.
Another major reason is just how memorable the whole thing was. I agree it was memorable. Scott scored two goals, was named All-Star MVP, and all 6’8" and 260 lbs. of him were lifted on the backs of his Pacific Division teammates. It was lightning in a bottle. But the thing about lightning in a bottle is you can’t catch it again. Look at online comments about the "John Scott rule" and you’ll see names like Chris Thorburn of Micheal Haley pop up as successors to Scott. It won’t have the same impact as last time. It was the spontaneity of the whole thing that made it memorable. If it keeps happening, voting plugs to the All-Star Game would become as tedious as the All-Star Game itself (in people's eyes).
Of course, a major reason the John Scott campaign started was just to stick it to the NHL. And that’s really petty. I honestly don’t have much else to say as far as this is concerned. The NHL’s reaction was petty, and I’m not giving them a pass. I just have an idea of what would make for a decent All-Star Game, and every game being partly made up of plugs just to annoy Gary Bettman isn’t part of it.
Don’t get me wrong. Even though I didn’t vote for him, and even after this whole argument against a repeat, I did come around to the John Scott campaign once it became clear it was honourable in intent. It’s just that this year, it doesn’t seem honourable. A vote for some grinder this year would just be a bid to make the NHL feel bad and recapture feelings that wouldn’t be there a second time around.
I don’t think the NHL is right to implement this restriction, but I agree with its intention. John Scott had his day in the limelight, and I wouldn’t change that, but players of his ilk really don’t belong in an All-Star Game. It’s an opportunity for the league’s stars to get together and play a game in the same building with a relaxed atmosphere. Let’s keep John Scott a fond memory and hope that some of the passion that went into last year carries over to this.