The NHL fixed the All-Star skills competition, and all it took was the right reward.
Specifically, it took $1 million, which was the prize offered to the winner of the 12-man showdown on Friday. There was also an additional $100,000 available to the top goalie. And that, along with the various format changes, seems to have made the difference. The players seemed engaged. They actually tried. Well, almost all of them, but we’ll get to that.
The bottom line is that apparently, these guys respond to the promise of the right reward. OK then, I’m in. Let’s hand out a few more.
Since today’s generation of players want to be
bribed rewarded for their hard work, let’s keep the good vibes going. I can’t offer another million because I spent it all on buying one souvenir hat for my kids, but I can get creative. Let’s give out 15 awards for the best and worst of All-Star weekend so far, based on some of the event’s previous memorable moments.
The “Mario Lemieux scores four goals in Pittsburgh” award for most predictable outcome that was still super cool
To Connor McDavid going four-for-four in the accuracy shooting competition. Look, I’m old and cynical and complain about everything, but I’ll always pop for an old-fashioned four-for-four. Especially when they’re breaking styrofoam targets, which they wisely brought back. If the hockey gods love us, they’ll deliver one (and only one) perfect performance every year.
The “Fox glow puck award” for technical innovation
To that special quad-box goal light they used for the accuracy shooting. When you need to signal four goals in quick succession, now you have a solution. Let’s get one of those in San Jose for the stretch run.
(And yes, the glow puck was fine. It’s been almost 30 years and it’s time to admit it.)
The “Phil Kessel sits alone” award for most awkward moment
To Elias Pettersson, who wiped out during the stick-handling event and crashed into a poster of… himself.
Yeah, I don’t know why they put those there either. But it paid off, because seeing a guy clip his own face in a million-dollar competition was oddly satisfying.
(Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. It’s not like he’s ever going to have to worry about running into another Elias Pettersson with the Canucks.)
The “John Garrett’s stolen truck” award for the unexpected hero who wasn’t even supposed to be there
To Connor Bedard, the injured Blackhawks rookie who still showed up for the weekend, and took part in the one-timer competition along with Sidney Crosby. They were the two passers, and, well, Bedard kicked the old man’s butt, feeding both of the event’s top two scorers.
And here’s my favorite part of this: You know that Crosby is going to be secretly furious about this for years. A fun secret about every ultra-successful athlete is that they’re all hugely hyper-competitive. They’d straight-up strangle a guy over pregame soccer during training camp, so you know Crosby is going to lose sleep over getting beat by a teenager. He’s probably going to make Auston Matthews come to Cole Harbour and run drills in the offseason.
The “Alexander Ovechkin’s magically refilling Solo cup” award for most unfortunate inanimate object
To the clock in the fastest-skater event, which failed on the first attempt of the night’s first event. William Nylander crossed the finish line, and the clock just kept counting. Somewhere, Nylander’s lap is still ticking away.
It was a nice reminder that this was still an NHL event, and that something would go wrong. Luckily, they mostly got the glitches out of the way early, even tempting fate with some randomized light-up obstacles in the finale that everyone assumed would fail but didn’t.
The “Al Iafrate revealing he has a skullet” award for the one thing we’re most likely to remember from this in 30 years
To Michael Buble, for being on mushrooms at the draft. Yes, I know, he denied it later. Too bad, Michael, we’re not here to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The “Owen Nolan points at the corner” award for a good moment made great
To the one-on-one competition, which was a lot of fun in its own right but was made even better by having the players draft the goalie they’d face. That led to Nylander taking the Kings’ Cam Talbot with the first selection, and then explaining it was because, and I quote, “This guy has been so bad for the last few weeks that he just got his coach fired.”
Wait, I’m being told he actually said it was because Talbot was standing across from him. But we all knew what he meant, and we love him for it. (Also, Nylander proceeded to light Talbot up like a runway on a foggy night, so you can’t say he made the wrong pick.)
Seriously though, this event rocked. Highlight of the night.
The “Vincent Damphousse scores four goals” award for best performance by someone you kind of forgot was even there
To Mathew Barzal, who may not be a megastar at the McDavid/MacKinnon level, but who showed up to play and nearly won the whole thing. He came in second in the fastest-skater competition, scored well in the passing challenge, and then nearly won the stick-handling. It all came crashing down in the finale, when he ran into the dreaded mini-nets and did so poorly that they had to scramble to find extra pucks so that he didn’t run out. That was a bit painful to watch, but overall he had a great night.
The “Pretty much every player in an All-Star Game in the last 10 years” award for total lack of effort by somebody who clearly didn’t want to be there
It was going to be hard to beat Justin Bieber here, but in an upset, we’re going to give this one to Nikita Kucherov getting booed for basically quitting halfway through the passing competition, all but randomly flinging the pucks in the general direction of the target while making his way from station to station with all the urgency of a Jason Allison penalty shot.
Nikita Kucherov’s effort at this event sort of explains why people don’t get behind the NHL All-Star Game.
— Julian McKenzie (@jkamckenzie) February 3, 2024
Then it happened again, after he lost the puck during the stick-handling event and pulled the chute once more. He ended up finishing last in the overall standings, and presumably was out of uniform and peeling tires away from the building roughly eight seconds later.
What was his deal? I’m guessing that after he finished last in the one-timer event, he knew he wasn’t going to win the million and just decided to go operation shutdown on the rest of the night. And I kind of get it. But dude, when you’re getting booed for not trying at an exhibition event famous for having nobody try, maybe crank it up a notch.
The “Dylan Larkin’s flying start” award for a controversy we can all get way too mad about
To David Pastrnak’s win in the one-timer competition being overturned after they got the scoring wrong. We thought he’d beaten Nathan MacKinnon by a single point with a dramatic final shot snipe, but apparently not. Instead, we got a half-hearted scoring correction during a break.
They’re overturning stuff on replay review in the all-star competition, and if anyone needs me I’ll be the guy jumping out of the pressbox.
— Down Goes Brown (@DownGoesBrown) February 3, 2024
Shoutout to whichever Bruins video coach caught that on the freeze-frame footage and told his team to challenge.
The “Erik Karlsson dresses up like a pirate so he’s going to the Lightning” award for minor thing we can all read way too much into
To Team Hughes, which ended up with five of the six available Canucks at Thursday’s draft. Co-captains Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson made sure to add Thatcher Demko, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser.
The one Canuck who they didn’t take? They new guy, Elias Lindholm, for whom the team had just traded. Why? Because, very obviously, they reject him. Lindholm is the kid who just transferred to the school, and the other kids won’t let him sit at the lunch table with them because they say he still has Calgary Flames loser cooties all over him.
Between that and Pettersson being eliminated from the skills competition because J.T. Miller had the tiebreaker on him, it’s safe to say that the Canucks are a fractured team right now. Can they recover in time for the playoffs? We’ll have to find out, but no, they cannot.
The “Nick Foligno as All-Star captain” award for maybe going a little too far on the hometown pandering thing
Special guest-passer Steve “Stumpy” Thomas, huh? Sure, why not, especially if Motor City Smitty and Ken Yaremchuk weren’t available.
The “Wayne Messmer belts out the anthem” award for best performance by a non-player
To the guys who had to set up, tear down and occasionally move the stage that we apparently needed to have on the ice throughout the night. The event started with a musical performance by somebody you haven’t heard of because you’re either cool or old, and the NHL doesn’t know any bands that either of those demographics like. Once it was over, we all wondered whether they were actually going to do the whole competition with a stage at center ice. Nope. The crew sped out and tore down the whole thing quicker than Kyle Davidson. Nice work by everyone involved.
The “Wayne Gretzky’s third period explosion in 1983” award for undeniable greatness at the finish line
To Petterson, who stole the passing challenge with a dramatic three-for-three finish.
Honestly, the passing event is a neat idea that didn’t really seem to be working. There were too many competitors, the scoring rules were just a little bit too confusing, and you couldn’t always tell which attempts were hitting the targets and which were just missing. The crowd seemed to be checking out.
And then Pettersson checked them back in, going into the final leg down eight points and then nailing the three-point target with three straight shots. It got a genuine reaction from the fans, and from the players, too.
(Needless to say, we ended up getting a replay review on this one, too, to determine if time had expired. If they’d overturned it, I was going down onto the ice to fight the referee. Thankfully, sanity prevailed and we got to keep a cool moment.)
And finally, the “Ray Bourque scores the winner in the Boston” for most obvious but appropriate ending
To McDavid for winning the whole thing, which was fitting since he was the one who designed it.
@DownGoesBrown Where does “Connor McDavid gets to re-design the skills contest to his preferences and then competes to win $1 million” fall under great hustles?
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) February 3, 2024
He’s also the best player in the world by a mile, and Friday was yet another reminder. Yeah, it turns out that when you strip away most of the silly gimmicks and just turn the whole thing into a hockey competition in which guys actually try, it’s probably going to be won by the super-fast guy with crazy-good puck skills and laser-like accuracy. Huh. Who knew?
But overall… I’ve got to be honest, I kind of liked it. The revamped competition certainly wasn’t perfect, and had a handful of cringey moments. But it was also fun, and didn’t drag too much, and it felt like the players cared. And in the end, the best player put an exclamation point on it.
I’ll call that a win. And if the players have any competitive juices left for Saturday, we might even get a few decent games. Hey, it could happen. At the very least, we know Kucherov saved his energy.
(Photo of Connor McDavid: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)