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Much ado about all-stars

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... the National Hockey League continues to struggle to get it right. ... They should stop tinkering and get back to basics. There's too much experimenting, too many rules modifications, too many mood swings, too many incursions of technology, too many officials on and off the ice, too many people who don't know what they're talking about having much too much to say.


The fact that all-star festivals in the four major professional sports have become needless folly is pretty much accepted as axiomatic. Time-worn and out of date they only work for the host cities, as handy excuses for huge parties, and network television, ever good at milking profit from peddling sheer nonsense.

Beyond that, there's no excuse. In the end, they only trivialize the games and make comic the people they purport to celebrate. All-star gigs no longer make any sense.

And yet they bear on, longer and louder than ever. Highly contrived productions, like hockey's "skills competition" and baseball's abominable "home run-hitting contest", increasingly eclipse the actual games. Gimmickry sells, apparently; but for how long? Interest in these farcical routines will fade and then what will they have left. In the end the games may only succeed in demystifying themselves.

Of the four all-star extravaganzas, football's dim-witted "Pro Bowl" is the most endangered. Apparently, not even the lure of lavish expense-free vacations in Hawaii can lure bone-weary survivors of another grueling NFL campaign to a meaningless game offering only further risk of injury, even if they don't seemingly play hard enough for anyone to get hurt. At last count more, than a hundred alleged NFL all-stars spurned invitations to play in this year's edition, including all seven Patriots selected.

The plight of the NFL's Pro Bowl is an omen the other leagues should heed. The modern athlete, too busy counting his money and trying to stay healthy, no longer gives a hoot for these silly things.

Ultimately accepting such realty will be hardest for baseball. Theirs was the first and the best of these gigs, long enjoying what's casually termed these days "iconic status" which -- if it means anything -- suggests everyone cared intensely about it, even the players.

Once revered as the "midsummer night's dream-game," the charm of the thing has faded steadily over the past 40 years as big money more and more consumes every aspect of what they now call ''the industry,'' taking with it the passions that once sizzled between the two leagues of major league baseball. Now fully bonded partners flourishing under one big tent, the AL and the NL simply no longer hate each other and that's greatly helped turned their annual all-star game into something resembling patty-cake.

More comfortable with stylized play and outright show-boating the basketball version pretty much rumbles along as usual. It's always been only about offense and that's what it remains. No defense allowed! One of these years one side is going to score 200 points, or both together may hit 400. All of which makes the entire thing "pointless", of course. But to the NBA's credit, they don't oversell the thing, although I wouldn't know for sure not having watched in about 25 years.

At the other extreme we have the National Hockey League desperately striving every year to stretch their bulging all-star opus to ever more ridiculous extremes. This year's spectacle in Nashville lasted four full days and nights featuring a red carpet and fashion shows and too much mediocre music by local hootenanny guitar-pickers with odd little displays of hockey more or less splicing it all together. Everyone who is anyone in the game seemed to be there although many had the dazed look of folks wondering "Why?" But the good burghers of Nashville -- still rather new to the big-time, you need realize -- seemed to be having a lovely time.

The NHL is way overboard on their all-star thing. It was four days of bobbing and weaving leading up to a feeble demonstration of how hockey has never been played before and ought never be played again. What are they trying to prove, you wonder? It must be a derivative of the NHL's well known if entirely unnecessary inferiority complex.

But then NHL all-star games have truly been routinely terrible for many years now; all about offense with no hitting, checking, or anything resembling defense. Unlike basketball, this game can't be played that way and remain remotely interesting. So this year they came up with the bright idea of playing a series of mini-games with three skaters on each side instead of five. The three on three instead of five on five gimmick may work reasonably well for five minutes of overtime during the regular season, but it does not work as the format for entire contests.

And that's hardly surprising. Would it make sense for a major league baseball game to be played six on six; say, two infielders, two outfielders, a pitcher and a catcher? Of course not! You'd have lots of runs scored, and rampant if perhaps entertaining confusion, and the poor pitcher would fast become a basket case. But it wouldn't be baseball; not as we know or want it. Okay, granted down-sizing the sides makes even less sense in baseball. But my point is it's not the way hockey should be played either.

Oddly, many hockey folks were predicting this latest gimmick would work, maybe even be great. But it didn't and it wasn't. Three guys on each side aimlessly floating up and down the ice, virtually untouched, unloading back and forth on the goalies, and if I were a Stanley Cup contender I'd have hated to have had my guy in net.

It was glorified pond hockey, which can be fun to play or even watch, of course. But not to be taken seriously let alone offered as a demonstration of this great game at its best played by its greatest performers. As alleged to be that, it was faintly pathetic. The only way for the NHL to eliminate its all-star game problem is to eliminate its all-star game. Pronto!

It is but one example of how the National Hockey League continues to struggle to get it right. Methinks their problem is they do too much tinkering and don't have enough faith in the basic strength and artistry of their game as it has been played for eons. They should stop tinkering and get back to basics. There's too much experimenting, too many rules modifications, too many mood swings, too many incursions of technology, too many officials on and off the ice, too many people who don't know what they're talking about having much too much to say.

One day I fully expect them to "experiment" by eliminating the blue lines which would certainly increase scoring, their latest obsession. Hey, a game without off-sides might be fun. And that could greatly reduce icing, eh. Fewer whistles! That'd be good. Meanwhile, watch for them to strip the goalies of at least 10 pounds of equipment, or maybe widen the nets a foot. Get the goalies; that's the new game within the game. I jest of course. Or at least, I think I do.

In the light of all this, the John Scott fiasco that punctuated this year's NHL all-star game in a notably ugly way becomes almost uproariously appropriate. Scott is the career hockey hoodlum voted onto the Western Conference all-star team by fans goaded on by goofy radio talk-show boys. Intended as a joke, it got out of control.

Make no mistake about it, Scott is a bad actor; a nefarious slug who's insulted his game with mindlessly brutal behavior. In an NHL career, stretching over parts of seven seasons, he's scored five goals while being penalized 591 minutes and suspended frequently.

A hockey giant at 6'8", he tried to end the career of a nice classy player named Louie Ericksson two years ago with a vicious blindside hit in one of his typical outrages. Scott is no hockey goon. Goons have codes of ethics. Scott is a hockey thug, a felon. There's a difference.

And entirely because of the ridiculous contrivances of their ersatz all-star game, John Scott ends up MVP; winner of a new motor-vehicle and nice chunk of dough. And all around people who should know better are calling him "the hero" and saying he's "a great story."

It's pure idiocy! Congratulations, my dear NHL. In the end, you made your own all-star game the biggest joke of all. I love Hockey. It's my game. But there are times when I despair for it.

Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.

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