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Dion Phaneuf makes it, but has the term “All-Star” has lost its meaning in hockey?

It was nice to hear that Dion Phaneuf was voted to the mid-season NHL All-Star team, though some people were upset that the Senators have four guys named to the squad, a case of modern-day ballot box stuffing to be sure.  (In fairness, Leaf fans did the same thing with our players, though some Leafs were arguably more deserving based on their actual performance in the first half of the season.  But let's be honest, a lot of people vote because a player plays for a particular team, and not because of how well they are playing...)

We all remember the rather odd and slightly absurd NHL All-Star selection process last January.  In what was thought to be an innovative concept, the league asked the two team “captains” (am I getting this right?) to pick their prospective teammates—one by one.

This rather awkwardly reduced things to the awful old school-yard approach, but I guess a lot of people liked it.  It was a “show”, and we can't seem to decide anything without a big production nowadays, eh.

For me at least, one of those once truly significant achievements—or designations, if you will—has lost a lot of meaning over the past couple of decades.  I’m thinking specifically in terms of what it means to be an “All-Star” in hockey, and in other sports, for that matter.

It’s funny, I think I’ve felt this way my whole life.  I remember when I was a kid in the early 1960s that the NHL used to have a vote (certain writers and their fellow select media few…) to decide who were the “mid-season” NHL All-Stars.  They also voted on who was the leader for the Hart Trophy (MVP) etc.  at the official mid-way point of the NHL season.  (I should add that in those days, in pre-’67 expansion, the annual All-Star game was actually played before the regular-season began.  The game pitted the defending Stanley Cup champs against an All-Star team of the rest of the NHL's best players.  There was no mid-season All-Star game until 1969, I think it was…)  So, the voting I am referring to did not place guys in a mid-season All-Star game.  It was simply voting which counted toward half of the final All-Star ballot.  There was a first-half ballot and a second-half ballot and the league added the two together at the end of the season.  The overall leader was named the first or second-team end-of-season All-Star or Trophy winner.  (I have probably only made things more confusing...)

In any event, a guy could pile up such a huge lead in balloting at the half-way mark in those days that he would practically sew up the end result with a big first half—or if he had a big reputation.

The former happened in Toronto the year that young Leaf winger Brit Selby (pictured at right) had something like 11 goals prior to the half-way point of the pre-expansion 1965-'66 season.  Brit, all of 20 years old and right out of junior at the time, had a break-out first half and was quite rightly the top vote-getter for the rookie award.  But he only scored two or three goals in the entire second half.  Though some other first-year players had been more consistent, Selby walked away with the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie-of-the-Year because he had accumulated such a big lead on the first-half ballot.  (Selby had a second tour of duty with the Leafs a few years later, and I thought he was a better player then even though his numbers weren't as impressive, perhaps.)

I guess in one way it made sense to break it down that way to determine who deserved to be a full-season “All-Star” or Trophy winner, but I still think waiting until the regular season is finished to vote is the best approach.

But my broader point today is that the actual term “All-Star” has been diluted.

Take the NFL, for example.  If you play in the Pro Bowl (the meaningless game that historically was played after the NFL championship/Super Bowl game), you are considered an All-Star.  But the truth is, five guys might have begged off playing in the game because they say they are injured, or frankly, are just not interested in playing an exhibition game after their season has been over for weeks.  So you may be the 6th best quarterback in the balloting, but because Manning, Brady and others don’t want to show up, you become a “Pro Bowler”.  For the rest of your career, you will get credit for being a “Pro Bowler” and an “All Star”.

The thing is, to me, the only ballot that really matters in football is the one that isn’t completed until the 16-game season is over, and results in the legitimate year-end “All-Pro” selections.  The players who are voted to those teams are the very best at their position—1 quarterback, 1 fullback, 2 halfbacks, 2 guards, four linebackers, etc.  There is a “First Team” All-Pro squad and a “Second Team” All-Pro squad.  That’s the team I wait to hear about every February, and that selection has real meaning for me.  If you make one of those teams, you truly are an All-Star.

It’s much the same with baseball.  That sport really has it backwards.  The “mid-season classic” laps up all the attention and hoopla but the players selected are often not really All-Stars.  Every team has to be represented, for one, and goodness, fans play a role in that selection process, often by stuffing the ballot box for their favorite guy—hardly the way to pick the players who are truly the best at their position. 

I may be wrong, but very few people seem to pay attention to baseball’s end of season “All-Star” team.  Hell, is there even one?  Sure, we focus on the Cy Young award, who the MVP is and the Gold Glove winners, but the real hoopla surrounds the game in the middle of the season in July.  You may hit .200 in the second half of the season, but if you played in that game, you’re remembered forever as an “All-Star”.

Truthfully, I have to say that I feel the same way about how things unfold in the NHL.  The mid-season All-Star game, when they bother to have it, means nothing to me.  It’s an awful game, and who gets selected is largely meaningless.

What I do pay close attention to, every year, is when the league announces the true, end-of-season "First" and "Second Team" NHL All-Star selections.  Those are the guys who have achieved something special, yet I would bet that most of us could not name the twelve true All-Star players so designated just this past June, much less in years past.

I don’t care so much how many All-Star games a particular individual has played in.  I’m much more apt to tip my hat to the guy who has been named, say, the very best right-winger in the entire league at the end of the season, even once in their career.

None of this is a big deal, I realize, of course.  I just wish we, as fans—and the mainstream media—focused more on meaningful All-Star accolades, not the mid-season stuff.

So good for Phaneuf for being "voted" in.  But I'll be a lot happier for him (and for Kessel or Lupul or any other Leaf), if they make the end-of-season All-Star team, like Phaneuf did in Calgary a few years ago and like McCabe and Sundin did on behalf of the Leafs in 2003-'04.

That really would be - and mean - something.

11 comments:

  1. I'm with you, Michael - even more so! I've never seen the point of an "All Star" game. It comes at a bad time in the season, there's always the (small) risk that a player will get injured, and it serves no useful purpose except to generate TV revenue and give journos something else to write about. I'd rather they just give every team three days off or, better yet, just continue the season!

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  2. Thanks Gerund O'...we're on the same page on this one. I'd be happy not to bother with a mid-season All-Star game, either...

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  3. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 7, 2012 at 8:01 AM

    Ditto, Mike...I think the All-Star game has lost its luster and creditably 30 years ago. I would rather the NHL have two winter classic games-one each in Canada and US. If our US cousin's desire to see the skill competition then let the old show-down series return in between periods...personally was more fun to watch.

    It truly is sad to see a player with talent never blossom. Every time I catch an old classic game of the Leafs and see Walton and Selby skating on the same line it make me sick inside. I get the same feeling with Derlago,Vaive and Courtnall, Leeman, and Damphousse, Marois...oh what could have been??

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  4. Totally agree. Can't remember the last time I sat an watched the ASG as its meaningless. Same for the other sports, although at least baseball decides who gets home advantage for the World Series. We're stuck with it though. I only wish there was a way the ASG could be the Winter Classic they love so much. It's such a show anyway with cameras and microphones mounted on goalies. Could never happen with hosts like Dallas or Phoenix but I just think its a shame they make teams jump thru hoops for a game that actually has 2 pts on the line.
    I digress. Love the blog. Keep it up!

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  5. Long Suffering...Yes, watching meaningless 14-12 hockey games has never had a lot of appeal for me, either. (I had a lot of that playing river hockey as a kid. Lots of fun, but hard to retrieve the puck sometimes if you didn't have good snow banks!) And thanks for picking up on the Selby reference. The Leafs had a number of those guys who could have been even better with the right coaching and a more supportive (and patient) environment. Lessons for the present, eh?

    Andy, thanks for your comments on the site. I appreciate hearing that. You make a great point about the "Winter Classics". Fun stuff, but a lot of Hollywood in there. I guess that's required nowadays. You're right, it's a lot of focus and effort for one game that has no more meaning than any of the other 82 regular-season games....

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  6. The ASG is just a cash grab - TV ratings, Jersey/Merchandise sales, creating interest with the competition stuff aside from the actual game. I'm just thankful the actual game hasn't become a spectacle like the NBA side-show game has.

    I did enjoy the team selection process though, added a nice element to the game and puts "accountability" (although false) on the players/captains because they chose their players.

    Trying to create "fairness" or "meaning" back to the ASG and the process is very easy - return back to North America versus The World. The best players would get voted in and not "my/your team's" players. The fan would want the true All-Star playing because it means more, connects better with the people as hockey fans and not just 'Insert Your Team' Fans.

    I would even be more inclined to watch the game and vote if it was North America vs The World.

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  7. Skill2Envy...exactly. There are so many factors which currently just make it an exercise in promotion, which is fine but not terribly meaningful. Honestly, I'm probably of an age and disposition (late 50s) where I'm just not "into" this sort of thing as much, you know, the hype and all that. But I certainly understand why some people would love an All-Star game, just like a lot of folks really enjoy the outdoor games.

    For me, it's just personal preference. I believe in end-of-season All-Stars in all sports. Most everything else is what it is- fun, promotion and hoopla, which again, is fine. Just not my cup of tea.

    I do think your notion of North America versus the World may help. My suggestion has long been: let's go back to the Stanley Cup winners taking on a true All-Star team. For me, that could be fun, and be a bit more intense than the current free-style skate....I'd have the game like they did in the old days, right before the start of the regular season, to trigger fan interest....or they could do it mid-season, instead.

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  8. I agree with all of you. The term "all-star" has no meaning whatsoever anymore and the so called game is a waste of time.
    Sad but true I'm afraid. Those who have played well all year and deserve to be called all-stars
    really should be recognized properly. The year end announcement is buried in the news in the off-season when nobody really cares and the hoopla over the mid-season game outshines the selection of the players truly deserving of this accolade.

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  9. You expressed it perfectly. Thanks Ed....

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  10. All good comments, and I had actually been contemplating an article along these very lines (still may do it).

    I think in general the ASG should be left as what it is... a pick up game. There should be nothing riding on it. Don't try to make it 'meaningful' like baseball has tried to do by having it determine home field in the WS.

    But, I would prefer to see it moved to maybe pre-season, and have the 1st and 2nd Team All-Stars (maybe supplemented by 3rd place selections) go up against the All-Rookie Team (supplemented by players from teams not represented already). Not a full line-up, but then it's not a real game.

    Use it to kickstart the season. Forget fan voting, it's useless anyway. All Stars are All Stars, don't place emphasis on team affiliations etc. But this might help people recognize the end of season All Stars better.

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  11. Mark, I like your notion of something "before the season". For me, I'd probably go with the previous year's Stanley Cup champion, but I could be convinced to try just about anything other than what we have now....Thanks Mark.

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