All-Stars, Yes; All-Star Games, No
Sometimes the sports gods combine with the calendar for an act of blessed mercy. Sunday, for example.
The two most pointless contests in North American sports took place on the same day: the NHL All-Star Game and the NFL Pro Bowl. Got ‘em both out of the way in one tidy day-night doubleheader. (If you bet a parlay on the two events, your bookie is required to report you directly to Arnie Wexler.)
A quick question: Can you name the three most memorable moments in the history of these games? How about two? Can you remember even one?
For me, it's probably when New England running back Robert Edwards blew out his knee after gaining more than 1,100 yards in his rookie year. That was in February 1999. But it wasn't in the game; it was in the "Rookie Beach Bowl" earlier in the week. Edwards wasn't even on the Pro Bowl squad, which means my personal Pro Bowl memory count is back down to zero.
On the ice, it would have to be the year Wayne Gretzky scored seven goals to lead the Wales Conference to victory in a 13-12 nail-biter. Unless he played for the Campbell. OK, I made all that up. (Though he did score four goals in one All-Star Game period. Also in a regular-season period. They didn't call him the Great One for nothing.)
Face it: The two sports don't lend themselves to All-Star Games. They're wonderful spectacles because they combine speed and skill with power and strength, moments of grace interspersed among violent collisions. To protect the players from injury, these exhibitions simplify the rules and take out the element of physical confrontation.
The hockey players don't check. The football defenses don't blitz, so the offense doesn't really have to block all that much. The result is like a poker game with a fistful of wild cards.
At least the football players get a week in Hawaii. Hockey's best spent the weekend in Raleigh, N.C., hoping they could get back to their teams without winter storms messing up their connecting flights.
The NHL has tried a variety of formats since its first All-Star Game in 1947. Most of the games in the years of the Original Six matched the Stanley Cup champions against an all-star squad from the other five clubs and was played at the start of the season. Since expansion, the teams have usually been divided by conference, a distinction neither fans nor players seem to care much about.
This year the NHL experimented with a model right out of the playground, having two captains choose sides. The draft proved to be the highlight of the weekend, with captains Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom playing at their reluctance to select some of their teammates (or in Staal's case, his brother).
Unfortunately, they then played a game, which looked like fun but nothing like pro hockey.
The all-star nature of the Pro Bowl is mocked by its presence the week before the Super Bowl, with none of the two best teams' players participating. The scheduling is nonetheless an improvement, since before 2010 the game was played the week after the Super Bowl, and the players from the two conference champions had to come up with excuses not to play.
There's no reason these two sorry spectacles can't be put out of their misery. The NHL has skipped several All-Star Games for lockouts, for international series against the Soviet Union and in Olympic years. The NFL's first exhibition game of the year used to match the league champion against a college all-star team, until the absurdity of pitting a team of rookies against the league's best hit everyone at once. (That and a violent rainstorm in 1976 that resulted in the last such game being abandoned in the third quarter.)
For that matter, the NFL staged a so-called Playoff Bowl in the 1960s between the second-place teams in each conference (or losers in the league semifinals after the NFL split into four divisions), each team vying for the honor of finishing third in the league. Players nicknamed it "the Rotten Bowl."
Many traditions end. These two All-Star contests are certainly good candidates.