Published January 27, 2011
RALEIGH, N.C. – While the NFL and NBA are facing labor uncertainty, the NHL is taking a moment to puff out its chest as it heads into an All-Star weekend unlike any other.
Six years after a full season was lost, the NHL finds itself in a unique position of negotiated calm and unprecedented success. Hockey will never enjoy the revenue streams the NFL produces, but the little brother league can relate to the uncertainty that threatens upcoming football and basketball games.
The NHL certainly likes its current view, far away from the storm.
As it takes the midseason spectacle to Raleigh for the first time, the NHL said it is on pace to break revenue records. The league expects total revenue to rise for the fifth straight year to nearly $2.9 billion. League generated revenue is believed to be going up by 14 percent — an 85 percent jump over the past four years.
"The league is extremely well positioned," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The vital signs are good and we anticipate continued growth and momentum. The strong numbers are a testament to a great product on the ice, a growing fan base that loves our game, and a strategy that provided a path for corporate America to reach that fan base."
And now the NHL is pushing the envelope.
While the league and the game will take a big hit because Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby — the face of the league and its most popular player — is out with a concussion, at least there is another hook to draw people in.
Outside of taking the All-Star game outside — a la the Winter Classic on New Year's Day — it is hard to envision a more radical change to the format that seemingly worked for years. This year's teams will be chosen by a televised draft on Friday.
"You look around the leagues, the concept is pretty much the same: voted in or picked by fans or hockey personnel," Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. "I'd say this caught people probably 90 percent off-guard."
Brendan Shanahan is proving to be every bit as creative an executive as he was in building a Hall of Fame-caliber playing career. The eight-time All-Star, who is now the NHL's vice president of hockey and business development, worked with the league and the players' association to develop a plan that fans could relate to even more than the All-Stars themselves.
Instead of dividing the players by conference or nationality, both tried and true methods, the All-Star teams won't be set until the captains make their picks.
This is where fantasy meets reality. The draft is such an interesting concept, the NHL is running the risk that it will overshadow the game.
"There isn't any doubt, that is the focal point of the weekend," said analyst Eddie Olczyk, who will call the game with Mike Emrick on Versus. "I don't think there is any doubt it needed something. The league did a good job coming up with something a little different.
"It had gone stale for a while."
Eric Staal of the host Carolina Hurricanes will serve as captain of the aptly named "Team Staal," and along with his alternate captains — Washington defenseman Mike Green and Vancouver's Ryan Kesler — will stage a draft against Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and his assistants Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago's Patrick Kane on "Team Lidstrom."
One by one, All-Stars will be plucked off the board until both rosters are set for Saturday's skills competition and Sunday's game — the first since 2009 after a one-year hiatus created by the Vancouver Olympics.
"I think maybe they're trying to draw more interest. I think you've got to try something different, and that'll make it different, of course. Hopefully, it will work," said Hockey Hall of Famer John Bucyk, a seven-time All-Star with Boston and Detroit. "The All-Star game is the All-Star game and they know it's not going to be like a league game."
No one seems worried about that.
The NHL All-Star game rarely features even an occasional check, let alone a rough scrum. And with regular-season teammates likely to be on opposite squads for the weekend, no one wants to cause an injury that will jeopardize upcoming playoff chances.
Emrick said there is more buzz leading up to this All-Star game than any since 1996 in Boston when Fox introduced the glowing puck.
"It was something that the league needed to do just to give a little extra zing to it," Emrick said of the draft. "Should the game itself be the huge point of the weekend? In a perfect world, yes, but there are a lot of people who in the past have said that the skills competition turned out to be more significant than the game.
"Maybe the draft will wind up being a bigger headliner, but I don't think that there's any harm in that because people will be watching with their lists. It's not cracked up to be anything but a celebration of the sport."
Don't count Hall of Famer Phil Esposito as a fan of the way All-Star games are played these days.
"I don't think it's interesting," the 68-year-old said. "It's got to be more of a contest. The night before, you're doing the skills competition. I want to see hockey. I don't want to see that. I could play in that. It looks like a bunch of us old guys going out and fooling around."
"I don't know whether it will be different or not this year because of mixing everybody up. Personally, I'd like to see the Stanley Cup champion play an All-Star team. I remember the last one in '80. I played in Detroit. Hitting, everything else. It was fun. It's not been the same."
Certainly not, but the status quo wasn't really a good option, either.
The relevance of All-Star games is often a debate in sports, not just hockey. With fans now able to watch every game, every night on television or on a computer or even a cell phone, the special feeling of a rare glimpse at a player on a team at the other end of North America is gone.
The NHL didn't want to make the move as baseball did and add weight to an exhibition game. Home-field advantage is up for grabs between the American and National Leagues in baseball's midsummer classic. Hockey still wants to keep its showcase light.
"I like the fun-heartedness of the game," Olczyk said. "Make it what it is. Don't try to make it into something that it isn't. I think the league understands that."
It also knows the built-in intrigue, as well. Will the draft split up the Vancouver Canucks' Sedin twins, who have always played together? Will Staal pick his younger brother, Marc, a New York Rangers defenseman, or goalie Cam Ward — a teammate on the Hurricanes?
Eric Staal has already gotten pressure from his mother to choose Marc, and the Staals will be in town for a big family reunion.
Ward is putting on the heat, too, on his own behalf.
"It'd be fun if Eric and I could be on the same team so the home fans could have one team to be cheering for," Ward said. "But hey, if it happens and I go to Team Lidstrom, then I've got to shut down Staaler. I might hold it against him that he didn't pick me."
Don't think that Lidstrom hasn't thought of that. As the only representative from the Red Wings in the game, Lidstrom will be looking for any allies he can get.
"I know he wants Cam on his team, being in front of the home crowd and everything," Lidstrom said of Staal. "It might be a good strategy to take him and maybe take the crowd out of it and get the crowd on our side a little bit. But that's another thing that we'll have fun with."
AP Sports Writers John Marshall in Phoenix and Joedy McCreary, and AP freelance writer Mark Didtler in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.