The NHL All-Star Weekend is upon us. Friday includes the Skills Competition, the highlight of the weekend for a large chunk of fans, including old standards like fastest skater and hardest shot, along with new additions like the women’s 3-on-3 game and the Shooting Stars event. Saturday will feature the EA Sports Chel Gaming Challenge, and the actual All-Star 3-on-3 round-robin tournament.
The league is constantly making tweaks to the All-Star recipe — some good, some not so good — so we’ve gathered our panel to weigh in on our favorites from the past, our bold predictions for this weekend, and our suggestions for the future.
Read through our entire rundown, or skip ahead to a particular topic:
1. What is the most memorable moment in NHL All-Star Game history?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: I hesitate to mention it because I had a hand in it happening, but of course it’s John Scott getting voted into the 2016 NHL All-Star Game. Not only for what happened in the game, with the noted goon scoring a pair of goals, but for the NHL’s villainous attempts to undermine him — from invoking his children to discourage his participation, to refusing to list him among All-Star MVP candidates. (He won it anyway.)
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Kendall Coyne Scofield participating in fastest skater last year was an iconic moment for me. By placing seventh in a field of eight men, she opened a lot of fans’ eyes to the talent level of women’s hockey. I’ll never forget what she said directly after, facing the media, either: “Obviously I was a little nervous. But I knew it was a moment that was going to break a lot of barriers and a moment that would change the perception of our game.”
Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: This has to be part of growing up as a hockey-crazed preteen in the 1990s, but Owen Nolan‘s called shot for the hat trick goal in 1997 is it for me. He was on home ice, he had scored two goals eight seconds apart earlier in the game, and he called his shot on the league’s best goaltender at that time, Dominik Hasek.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: I’ll stretch the scope of this out to include the full weekend, and say it’s Alex Ovechkin‘s pursuit of a free car as the last player picked in the All-Star draft in 2015. Watching it in real time was so memorable, largely because you could see him getting progressively more and more inebriated as the night went on. He really wanted that car. There was something so silly and endearing about it, which is exactly what the weekend should be all about.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: Not nearly as monumental as other happenings in years’ past, Ovechkin’s prop-riddled routine in the 2009 Breakaway Challenge inspired a perceptible shift in the whole affair for me. When Evgeni Malkin outfitted his supposed “nemesis” in a Canadian-flagged hat and sunglasses, and Ovechkin went at it with two sticks, it felt like the event received a much-needed injection of fun. One that has fortunately endured.
Ben Arledge, NHL editor: I love when a goalie stands out in a game built around scoring. And while 17 goals were scored in the 1994 game at Madison Square Garden, hometown star Mike Richter made 19 saves on 21 shots in one period en route to the MVP. Most notably, the Rangers goalie — in that excellent white and teal Eastern Conference sweater — stopped Pavel Bure breaking in alone on a move that foreshadowed his huge penalty shot save on Bure a few months later in the Stanley Cup Final.
Vince Masi, ESPN Stats & Information: Mine has nothing to do with any game-related action. The national anthem during the 1991 All-Star Game in Chicago still gives me chills. It was the first time that a national TV audience (on NBC with Marv Albert doing play-by-play) got to witness what we all know now, with Chicago fans outwardly cheering during the national anthem, especially with the Gulf War serving as a backdrop for fans bringing in American flags and signs supporting the troops.
Sachin Chandan, fantasy hockey editor: So, I wasn’t alive to see this moment, but I love watching clips of Gordie Howe’s final All-Star game in 1980, when he returned to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the game. Howe, at the time a Hartford Whaler, received a four-minute standing ovation, a reminder that at its core, the All-Star game is for the fans.
2. Add one event to the skills competition portion of the weekend.
Wyshynski: Fastest skater relay. As I wrote in my “10 changes we’d like to see for the skills competition” piece, I appreciate the history of the one-on-one fastest skater battles but generally prefer a relay race to a sprint. Connor McDavid, skating the anchor leg? Yes, please.
Kaplan: Allow the players to dress up however they wish to take a penalty shot, and have a panel of celebrity judges rate them on style points. I was just at KHL All-Star game in Russia, and what struck me was that the events were nearly identical — but the players had more fun with it, which showed off their personalities. One player dressed up as Alexander Pushkin and recited a poem; another delivered the goalie a plate of pancakes. The NHL could use some more of that, which in turn would help promote their stars.
Peters: I’ve heard this talked about by other media colleagues as well and I love it: Adding NHL alumni to the skills competition. Maybe you make it a 3-on-3 pro-am event similar to the celebrity softball game during MLB All-Star Week, or maybe you have them compete in events they helped make famous like Ray Bourque in accuracy shooting. They might be slower these days, but nostalgia sells.
Filipovic: I’d like to see the best players in the world play a game of H-O-R-S-E. Whether it’s with a goalie in net, or simply attempting a sequence of moves that culminates with a shot at a yawning cage, it would be fun to see how far outside of the box they’d think, and what the limits would be to what they’re willing to try. As we’re seeing with the increasingly common occurrence of lacrosse-style goals, players are practicing (and pulling off) moves that would’ve been unthinkable for past generations. Let’s see what else they have up their sleeves.
Matiash: Wysh’s relay proposal is excellent. Make it happen, NHL.
Arledge: I’m a big fan of Dmitri’s equivalent of the NHL’s dunk contest. H-O-R-S-E would be all kinds of fun. But for the sake of variety, how about a condensed, fast-paced game of 2-on-2 in the neutral zone? Bring the nets in, toss in a puck and let the creativity and bang-bang hockey begin. After every goal, have a full change; two new skaters and another goalie for each side. Let’s say first to seven goals wins it. And an added bonus: extra points for creative goal celebrations. Fans would love that.
Masi: Hockey’s version of a basketball one-on-one where a forward goes up against another forward and has to use moves before trying to score on a goaltender. It would be really cool to see McDavid just use his stop-and-start skating abilities to blow by another player before bearing down on the goalie.
Chandan: This isn’t adding a new event per se, but in between rounds, let’s have a few mascots do the skills challenges. Gritty charging right at Bailey in Save Streak. Gnash giving the Hardest Shot challenge a try. Fastest skater coming down to Chance the Gila Monster and NJ Devil. It’s quick, it’s GIF-able, and an opportunity for comedy between player events.
3. Should there be a penalty for a player choosing to skip the All-Star Game?
Wyshynski: Yes. It’s an obligation to help market the league (and to help the league appease its marketing partners, of course). But I do think there needs to be some flexibility on the NHL’s part on punishment for skipping it due to exhaustion. An easy, logical starting point: The Alex Ovechkin Rule. The NHL had no problem with him skipping out after the Capitals went on their Stanley Cup run. To the victor go the spoils: If your team hoists the Cup in mid-June, you get a “get out of All-Star Weekend” pass for the following January.
Kaplan: Yes, since it is part of a players’ contract to attend if he is selected. However, I wish the NHL would include some exemptions; maybe if you’ve appeared in five or more, you get one free pass. Or if you’re 30 years or older, you also can get one free pass.
Peters: I think there has to be, since it’s an important event for the league and stars dropping out takes some of the shine off of it. I respect a player’s need for rest, but the NHL simply can’t afford to miss opportunities to showcase the stars of the game, which is what this weekend is all about.
Filipovic: Absolutely not. The 82-game schedule is already long enough as it is, and it’s completely understandable why someone would want to use this rare break to do something they otherwise wouldn’t get to do during the grind of the regular season (whether it’s going back home, sitting on the beach, or spending quality time with family). That’s especially true for a veteran player like Alex Ovechkin, who has already done more than enough to help grow the game by playing a leading role in past events.
Matiash: Hard yes. These are contracted employees in the field of entertainment. The All-Star Game is part of the gig. I’m not asking anyone to overexert themselves — just sign some autographs, take a few selfies, tool around on the ice, have some fun with your pals. No one is demanding Alex Ovechkin the surgeon wreck himself over a long weekend before hitting the O.R. early Monday. They’re hockey players. And more than a few kids, who bought tickets months ago, are going to be disappointed in not seeing their heroes at a once-in-a-lifetime event. And that’s lousy.
Arledge: No way. Look, I get it. You need these big-name guys out there. But at the end of the day, the game isn’t serious. It’s a glorified publicity stunt that even at its best is no more than an exhibition. Some guys might love the weekend in the spotlight, whereas some might be counting on it for some rest. Play so well in the first half that you’re penalized for wanting a break? That makes no sense. And consider that the likes of Brad Marchand, Aleksander Barkov, Ben Bishop, Cale Makar and Max Pacioretty were left off the original rosters. Yeah, there is plenty of fill-in talent out there for guys who just want to take a breather before the stretch run.
Masi: Yes. With the advent of the bye week, there seems to be enough built in time off where going to the All-Star Game wouldn’t be much of a taxing experience for players.
Chandan: Yes, but a light penalty. Many players have legitimate reasons to prefer a week off instead of the game. If everybody opts to skip, then it’s a problem, but I believe the penalty should be a fine, rather than a suspension, and I believe that the NHL should be more lenient on players who have had IR stints earlier in the season.
4. Does the NHL have too much control over the selection process, and how should players be selected for the game?
Wyshynski: Way too much, and yes I realize that’s partially my fault. But well before the John Scott anarchy, the NHL had slowly reduced the fans’ influence in the event. As of 2020, fans vote for four division captains and four “last-man in” players that are again separated by division. This is a far cry from the five players (by position) from each conference of yesteryear. It’s the fans’ event. While I don’t necessarily loathe the NHL’s curation of the rosters, I think it has created a disconnect with the people who would be most engaged with the All-Star Game.
Kaplan: I don’t have a huge issue with the selection process as we typically get a good selection of stars to show up at the event (especially when injuries and no-shows don’t completely deplete the roster).
Peters: I think the NHL largely does a fine job, but a way to potentially add more intrigue or fun to the process is to allow designated All-Star legends to select each division’s team. Each division gets its own GM — a legendary NHL player or host team fan favorite not currently working in the league — who has sole discretion of selections based on some minimal criteria. Perhaps the winning GM gets a large donation to the charity of his choice or something like that.
Filipovic: I’m fine with the voting process for who gets in, but I’d love to see the league get back to incorporating some kind of draft to determine the teams. Like I said above, moments like Ovechkin petitioning to be picked last and Phil Kessel sitting on the stage awkwardly by himself are some of the most memorable images the event has created over the years. It also provides us with a unique opportunity of seeing the players mingle and interact in street clothes, and away from the ice. Some temporarily hurt feelings aren’t good enough of a reason to scrap it.
Matiash: I’m happy with leaving the bulk of choices to dispassionate insiders (i.e. the league). As seemingly the only fan on the planet not fully enchanted with John Scott’s earlier inclusion — I’m a monster, I know — it’s worth pointing out the difference between a skills-based All-Star event and a Most Popular Players convention.
Arledge: Every pro sports All-Star Game will have some snubs, and when you approach it through that lens, the NHL is doing all right. I wouldn’t mind seeing each of the 31 teams submit a full ballot instead of leaving it to the league office. And to avoid voting in their own guys, include a clause that a team cannot vote for anyone on its own roster. But the bigger concern I have is the division-based team format. Give me something more creative, like a breakdown by nationality: USA, Canada, Scandinavia and mainland Europe?
Masi: I’m fine with the way the NHL is selecting the players who go to the game. I really think the league should bring back a televised draft. Maybe change it up and add in a game-show component where the first player to answer a trivia question gets to steal a player from another roster. Or have a board similar to Jeopardy! where a player picks a number and it reveals which division they must pick from. You could add in a “steal” or a “daily double” where a player gets to make two picks to add some intrigue.
Chandan: I believe the NHL does exercise too much control, but that they generally do a good job of sending the best players to the All-Star Game. I think one way to juice the fan interest is having roles for nontraditional All-Stars, who might not be among the best but are very well liked by the fans who want to reward them with a selection. It could be a veteran in his likely final season, a player coming back from a significant injury, an energy-line grinder, or just a player who connects with the fan base.
5. Make one prediction for the All-Star weekend.
Wyshynski: The Shooting Stars skills competition, where men’s and women’s players fire pucks from the stands over the crowd at targets on the ice, gets the NHL its most attention from the non-hockey media since the debut of Gritty.
Kaplan: Someone other than Connor McDavid wins the fastest skater competition. Yes, we know McDavid is the best player in the league right now — and probably the fastest. But after three consecutive wins, complacency sets in and a hungry challenger — maybe Jack Eichel? — edges him for the crown.
Peters: The women’s 3-on-3 tournament steals the show and becomes one of the biggest talking points of the whole weekend, spurring more momentum for more NHL involvement in forming a new women’s league. This will easily end up being the most competitive event of the All-Star festivities, providing the highest entertainment value. Final score: USA 7, Canada 5.
Filipovic: We make it all the way through the games Saturday without some sort of stoppage to review whether a player’s skate was millimeters off of the ice while entering the zone, or if someone had vaguely nudged a goalie around the perimeter of the crease leading up to a goal. It’ll be a special slice of heaven for fans who otherwise can’t watch a hockey game without sitting through one of those delays.
Matiash: After too much complaining about the All-Star Weekend’s makeup, timing, or even mere existence in the weeks leading in, a good number of sourpusses will find something to enjoy about it as a fan. As they always do.
Arledge: In the four years the NHL has done the 3-on-3 format, we’ve seen a team hit 10 goals in a mini one-period game four times, but none have exceeded that number. This is the year you see one of the divisions net 11-plus. And despite the in-season flaws of the Pacific Division, that McDavid-led squad will be the one to do it.
Masi: A potential tying goal by McDavid is wiped out when Todd Reirden uses a coach’s challenge for goalie interference in the title round. It’s revealed that Leon Draisaitl interfered with Tristan Jarry as McDavid scored, and the Metropolitan Division holds on for a 9-8 win.
Chandan: The new Shooting Stars trick shot competition might have some kinks to work out this weekend, but it will be a memorable part of All-Star Weekend and give the league plenty to build on for an expanded version next year in South Florida.