Friday, January 23, 2009

Evening up the all-stars

So, the All-Star Habs will hit the ice tomorrow to show off their hockey skills against the best of the best (except for all the guys who are hurt...and the ones who declined the, I guess the best of the best who could make it to Montreal, but I digress.) Andrei Markov will slip right in there because he's the Canadiens' best player and a star no matter how you measure him. Alex Kovalev might not be the most consistent player out there, but there's no denying he's got the pretty skills that will make him look good in the Eastern Conference uniform with the "C" on his chest. Carey Price is just emerging, but there's little doubt he'll be showing his stuff at these games for years to come. Unfortunately, my favourite of the Habs' all-stars is the one taking the most flack for being voted into the show. Mike Komisarek is, of course, a premier stay-at-home defenceman who routinely leads the NHL in hits and blocked shots. But, while those are stats that help a team win through the grind of a long season and playoffs, they're not exactly the kind of skills you can show off in a venue like the all-star game.

As a result, Komisarek is being ridiculed by fans of other teams because he's the least offensively productive player at the game. That's not fair for him, although he's handling what might have been an embarrassment with a great deal of class. He's talking about how grateful he is to be considered for the honour and how proud he is to represent his team. And he's deflecting the credit for his being there onto his partner, Markov, whom he says makes everyone on the ice with him better. But a great guy like Komisarek shouldn't have to feel even marginally sheepish about being voted into a game like this. The voting by fans for the starting lineups at the all-star game needs to change.

And not just to avoid embarrassing decent men like Komisarek and Rory Fitzpatrick, either. Computerized voting and text messaging has turned the idea of a fan vote into a farce. Witness the close call this year when Pens' fans nearly text-messaged Marc Andre Fleury into the starting goaltender's spot, and two defencemen who had yet to play a game when voting started nearly ended up as starters.

I think the coaches of the two teams should choose the players, based on merit. I understand, however, that the NHL wants to include fans in the spectacle in its ongoing effort to reach out to people in places where hockey can't survive without gimmicks. To that end, I think the NHL should let the fans vote for the players who'll take part in the skills competition instead of those who'll take part in the game. This would serve three purposes. First, it would still allow the fans to have involvement in helping their favourite players make an appearance on the all-star stage. Second, it would allow players who may not have the package of skills necessary to be picked as an all-star...but who may have one excellent ability that would look great in a show-off session. And finally, it would save the honour of the all-star team selection for the truly deserving.

Just think how cool it would have been if Russ Courtnall could have been part of the fastest skater competition. He would never have made an all-star team, but boy, he was fast! It wasn't really fair that they should award that title without having guys like him involved. Same with Sheldon Souray. Now, he has made a couple of all-star teams because of his numbers. But he should have a chance to take part in the hardest shot competition every year, even if he isn't elected to the team. How could you name a guy champion of the hardest shot, if he didn't beat Souray to get it?

Electing the skills players would help get more players involved in the all-star weekend, and elevate the quality of the competition. It would also boost the rivalries among fans who claim their guy is the best at something. And, it would preserve the honour of being on an all-star team if the fan-voting were removed from that part of the festivities. I think one reason so many players are willing to give the weekend a pass is that fan voting has turned it into a popularity contest rather than a testament to skill. And there's no need for that to be so.

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