The original purpose of the NHL's All-Star game — before it even was given that name — was noble.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Maple Leafs played a team of NHL stars in Toronto in 1934 as a tribute to Irvin (Ace) Bailey, whose career was ended by a fractured skull he suffered on a check by Eddie Shore. Proceeds benefited Bailey's family. In 1937, the Canadiens played a team of NHL standouts in Montreal to honor Howie Morenz, who suffered a broken leg early that year and died several months later. In 1939, the game was a memorial to Babe Siebert, who drowned in an off-season accident. The Canadiens and stars of other teams raised $15,000 for Siebert's family.
Since then, the NHL's All-Star game has had many formats and has grown into a weekend extravaganza with no discernible logic behind the selection of players or teams. Like the All-Star game in other leagues, its relevance is up for debate in a long sports calendar.
Once played before the season as a matchup between the previous season's Cup champion and stars from other teams, the NHL's All-Star game has been an East-vs.-West game at midseason, a Wales Conference vs. Campbell Conference match at midseason and, as in Sunday's game at Nationwide Arena, a game between teams whose captains were arbitrarily chosen for being hometown favorites or marketable faces, as with Columbus' Nick Foligno and Chicago's Jonathan Toews.
Players' habit of withdrawing led the NHL to mandate that any player who pulls out but didn't miss his team's final game before the All-Star break can't play in his team's first game after the break. (That's you, Sidney Crosby.) The NHL, which skips the All-Star game during Olympic years, relies on fan voting to choose the first six players, and unnamed league executives to pick the rest. It uses a fantasy draft format to divide players, a practice since copied by the NFL Pro Bowl. And the Pro Bowl, once valued for giving players a postseason trip to Hawaii, has become an afterthought played on the weekend between the conference finals and the Super Bowl. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton made it this year as the seventh alternate.
Only baseball's All-Star game has any meaning, with the winning league getting home-field advantage in the World Series. Which might be unfair, but at least there's something at stake.
Why continue playing All-Star games, when fans can stuff the ballot box and make the commendable but hardly stellar Zemgus Girgensons of Buffalo the top vote-getter? Or not vote often enough, as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban referred to in calling the NBA's fan-balloting system "broken. Absolutely, positively broken"?
As always, follow the money.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday he was told this weekend's festivities will generate $12 million in visitor spending, with the league taking up 8,000 hotel nights. Owners love to host the event because they can promote their teams during fan festivals and other related events.
"We think getting everybody together to celebrate the game, to celebrate fandom, to celebrate our great players is terrific," Bettman said. "I think the fantasy draft has been a nice event that's actually been imitated…. We'll continue to look at it. If you or anyone else has a suggestion you'd like to share with us, we'd be happy to consider it."
That's Gary Bettman, NHL, 1185 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.