Analysis: New All-Star format, same old game

RALEIGH, North Carolina Sun Jan 30, 2011 9:44pm EST

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RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - A new format added some glitz to the NHL All-Star Game but in the end it was the same old story as Team Lidstrom out-gunned Team Staal 11-10 on Sunday in a showcase still looking for an identity.

A capacity crowd at the RBC Center seemed to enjoy the free-wheeling contest but whether the wider hockey world embraced the revamped game will be revealed by television ratings.

Since the end of the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL has shown a willingness to try new ideas such as the Winter Classic outdoor game, which has become the league's signature event.

Like the Winter Classic, the new All-Star format is not so much about looking forward as it is a throw back to hockey's past when kids lined up on the rink and picked sides.

The fantasy draft held on Friday, with Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal and Detroit Red Wings defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom dividing the NHL's 40 best players upped the fun quotient for an event that had grown stale.

But while the game had a new twist, the show on the ice featured the standard mix of negligible defense and lots of scoring.

"I don't think there's any reason to change the format (again)," said Team Staal forward Patrick Sharp, who skated away with All-Star most valuable player honors. "It did seem to generate a lot of interest.

"I had fun with it, I was a little nervous going into the draft. There was a lot of talk about who would be the last guy (picked).

"But all in all I think it was a good weekend."

Gimmick or innovation, the format change generated unprecedented interest in the buildup to Sunday's game with networks in Canada and the United States both carrying the draft live.

LACKS MAGIC

Still the contest has been unable to capture any of the magic associated with NBA's dunk-fest or Major League Baseball's mid-season classic, which has a competitive edge with the winner gaining home field advantage for the World Series.

Since the first All-Star get together in 1934, billed as the Ace Bailey benefit game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and a group of All-Stars, the NHL has tried to inject the game with some relevance.

It has tried Stanley Cup champions against All-Star teams, pitted the Wales Conference against the Campbell Conference and later East against West.

With introduction of more-and-more foreign players, the NHL briefly tried to capitalize on the North American-European rivalry with a North America against the World All-Star game before switching back to East verses West.

Part of the problem facing the NHL is the physical and sometimes violent nature of the game, the league and owners unwilling to risk players' health with playoff runs about to start.

As a result, the NHL has been left with a fun exhibition rather than a serious competitive contest, which it believes it can develop.

"I think everybody had a good time and that's what this is all about," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "This is what we thought would make the weekend more entertaining, more fun.

"We're feeling good about where we are, the things that we've done since coming back from the year off.

"It has been our focus to get hockey fans more engaged, whether it is the Premier Games in Europe, the Winter Classic, the Heritage Game or the way we do the All-Star Game, it's paying dividends.

"Sponsor investment in the game has never been greater and our ratings and viewership has never been better. We feel really good about things."

(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)

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