There is nothing wrong with hockey’s annual all-star game that an all-stations blackout—or 39 more Wayne Gretzkys, provided at least two of them are goaltenders— won’t cure.
The 35th all-star game came up groping for oxygen in the Nassau Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum on Long Island the other night, and, honestly folks, talk about confusion. Let’s see, the guys in the orange shirts were the Clarence Campbell Conference; no, the guys in the white were the Campbells, the guys in the orange were the Smythe Division, which during the regular season lines up with the H. Ballard Conference to form the Hartford Whalers—or something.
To begin at the beginning, what virtually nobody can remember is that the two conferences in the NHL are called the Prince of Wales and the Clarence S. Campbell. And, as few people know (or give a damn), the four divisions of the two conferences are the James Norris, the Lester Patrick, the Conn Smythe and the Jack Adams—oops—the Charles F. Adams Division. The problem is that the names contribute nothing to the identity of the teams that comprise them, and accordingly nobody really knows who in hell is playing for whom in the annual game. This removes the competitive, emotional and regional involvement, though it does help sleep.
Geographically, the names mean nothing and at the grassroots level where most fans live they’re as annoying as senatorial appointments. The hockey figures whose names ought to be remembered are the ones belonging to the giants among players, but every time the NHL’s governors sit down to name a division or a trophy they choose a fellow stuffed shirt.
Does each season’s scoring champion win, say, the Rocket Richard Trophy? No, the Art Ross. Is the most valuable player award named for Gordie Howe? No, for David A. Hart, father of one Cecil Hart who coached the Canadiens in Howie Morenz’s time (speaking of whom, is there a Howie Morenz Trophy? Ha. Is the Pope Japanese?). The list goes on. The only exception is Georges Vezina, the Chicoutimi Cucumber, who played goal for the rouge, blanc et bleu Stanley Cup winners. God knows how he got his name on the goalie’s cup, so to speak.
So the names of the fat cats have got
to go. And emotion and competition have got to be courted. When these ingredients are removed from hockey exhibitions, what you get are the Ice Follies with lousy costumes. Worse than that—no women.
Apart from Gretzky’s four goals the other night the only real interest for the Long Island customers was the appearance of Mike Bossy or Denis Potvin or some other local hero. Otherwise, the fans mostly nodded off—though don’t get the notion that these fans aren’t emotional. Your agent recalls an illustrative Stanley Cup playoff a couple of springs ago between the Isles and the Edmonton Oilers.
Back then the press gallery was right up under the stuccoed roof, actually it was the last row of seats in the building. In front were the long rows of fans, and on this night two years ago four of the fans were two guys and their wives who came prepared. The guys carried a hamper of sandwiches and a hamper of iced beer. One woman brought a horn, and the other woman, her knitting. She sat down when she arrived, took out the knitting and never looked up all night.
But her husband was a noisy guy who knew everybody, called to people by name, waved expansively and prattled on. He had a voice like the Queen Mary’s
horn. “Hey,” this guy would cry over and over, “Let’s go Islandahs!” He seldom shut up as his beloved Isles got in front, 2-0.
Then the Oilers banged in a goal, and he frowned. Rallying, his cry echoed across the big rink, “C’mon, Islandahs, let’s go, awready!” But just before the period ended Gretzky sneaked inside the defence and banged in a rebound to tie the game.
The fan got to his feet, silent, impassive, staring at the Islander net where the red light glowed. He raised his hands and opened his kisser. “Hey, Islandahs, yer gah-bitch! Yuh heah me? gah-bitch!” Then he sat down and opened another beer.
The notion here is that this guy and thousands like him were tuned in the other night hopeful of being entertained. But there can never be the emotional involvement or rivalry the fans care about as long as the annual game is a match-up between two practically invisible conferences.
What should be done, short of abandoning this bore altogether, is to return the game to the format employed for all-star games before expansion put teams all over hell’s half-acre. In those prehistoric times the Stanley Cup winner was matched against a side selected by fans from the other five teams in the NHL’s tiny fiefdom. The game was played in the home rink of the Stanley Cuppers. That way, everybody got into it. The home fans had the local heroes to ogle, and the folks at home identified with their own heroes and had a built-in villain, too: the defending Cup team. Emotional involvement and competition and an obvious rivalry, right?
The tasty ingredients could be ingested another way, perhaps bestowing even more reason for fans to whoop and holler. The suggestion was set forth for your agent the other day by Gordie Howe, an all-time all-timer, who was en route to visit his dad in Saskatoon. “Talk about all-stars,” Gordie said, “He’s just turned 90.”
What Howe suggests is a game between Canadianand U.S.-based teams. At first glance such a match-up looms as a mismatch in favor of U.S. teams, since they outnumber Canadian entries by 14 teams to seven. More than that, the three top teams currently are Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, indicating that U.S. teams have quality and quantity favoring them. As it happens, though, a man named Gretzky is based north of the border. Sides even.
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