The American Enterprise Online

Another NHL No-Star Game

by Howard Fienberg
February 1, 2002

On Saturday afternoon, North American will take on the World at the National Hockey League (NHL) All-Star Game. Players will strut, more goals will be scored than in an entire week of regular season games and the fans will be treated to the best that hockey has to offer. In theory. But what is the point of this annual exhibition game: making money, serving the greater glory of the game, or entertaining the fans?

Voting for the All-Stars has become an important tradition for most American sports leagues, so that they can demonstrate that truly care about and listen to their fans' wishes. It has been an imperfect exercise. But do the leagues ultimately trust the fans to do what's right?

Not really. Roy MacGregor, a hockey writer for Canada's National Post, uses baseball to illustrate the dilemma. In 1957, seven players from the Cincinnati Reds were voted to the National League All-Star Team by fans stuffing ballot boxes. A Cincinnati newspaper printed tear-off ballots and encouraged fans to fill in and enter them. As a result of the skewed balloting, seven of Cincinnati's mostly sad-sack players were voted to the All-Star team that year, despite the team finishing around .500 and in fourth place. True baseball fans exploded in rage. Commissioner Ford Frick took control, in the best interests of the game, yanked two of the Reds, Wally Post and Gus Bell, in favor of two fan faves: Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

But the commissioner did not stop there. All-Star voting was snatched away from fans the following season and turned over to the “experts”: players, managers and coaches. The fans did not regain power until 1970.

Fan balloting rarely results in what could be called the "best" starting line-up. The NHL All-Star game is no exception. This year's North American starters include forwards Vincent Damphousse and Owen Nolan, (both of the San Jose Sharks) and the World starters include forwards Sergei Federov (Detroit Red Wings) and Teemu Selanne (Sharks) and defenseman Sandis Ozilinsh (Florida Panthers). A problem emerges from this roster. Nolan, Federov, Selanne and Ozilinsh are four exciting stars having mediocre to abysmal seasons. Damphousse has not only played poor hockey this year, he has never been, nor will ever be, a star. So while those four made the cut based on past achievements, what convinced NHL fans that Damphousse belonged anywhere near an All-Star game?

Now that many votes are taken online for All-Star games, can hackers screw up the voting? Roy MacGregor all but made this accusation when he noted that three of the undeserving players come from San Jose, which also happens to be the heart of Silicon Valley. Once more, baseball provides the most frightening anecdote. Chris Nandor, a Red Sox fan convinced that Nomar Garciaparra needed to start the All-Star game a few years ago at shortstop, designed an automated program to stuff Major League Baseball's online ballot-box. By the time the league realized there was a problem, Nandor's program had sent in 39,259 votes.

Despite the NHL's assurances, encryption and security measures never outpace the ingenuity of those out to crack them and the Internet is teeming with hackers of all skills and motivations from around the world. But you don't need to be a talented computer geek to disrupt fan voting. Just sit down with a big pile of ballots and write them by hand. It is more time consuming, but much more simple.

Or, in the case of the NHL, just make sure that enough of the people coming to see your games fill out ballots. That could be why the Sharks, who regularly sell-out their arena, can muster so many ballots in favor of their lackluster players, while teams with more players than fans, like the Carolina Hurricanes, can never muster enough voting power to put Ron Francis, one of the best players of all time, into the starting line-up.

But Francis is not the only great or exciting player left on the bench this year. Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis came close to being voted as an All-Star starter for the World team this season. Unfortunately, his undeserved reputation as a "dirty" player means that he will never be invited to an All-Star game. He is one of the league's most exciting defenseman; he simply hits people into the boards rather than dancing around them to score goals. The league has tended to allow “dirty” players into the game only when they can also rack up points, like Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe.

The NHL has yet to decide who its fans are, let alone how best to serve them. It thus is unsurprising that the end product at the All-Star game is often bland, pasteurized hockey, regardless of the number of goals scored. The game is a microcosm of a long-running identity crisis and the current system of haphazard voting is the mere throwing of a bone to hockey fans. At some point, the NHL must decide who knows best and give them control-the fans, the "experts," or the league.

Hopefully, if the NHL ever learns to trust the fans, it will at least devise a better system of collecting fan opinion.

— Howard Fienberg is editor of PuckHog.

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