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The NHL Needs To Stop Taking Itself So Damn Seriously

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The NHL has launched itself into a self-destructive spiral of bad PR and even worse reactionary decisions, all over a meaningless exhibition game.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

If you draw comparisons to All-Star Games in two of the other major sports leagues in the US, you'll see very different executions of the same concept. The NHL, like the MLB, holds this exhibition in the middle of the season, whereas the NFL holds theirs at the end. The NHL, like the NFL, places no significance whatsoever on the outcome of the game, whereas the MLB uses theirs to determine home-field advantage for the World Series.

We saw last year with the NHL All-Star game an exaggerated case of why the All-Star game really doesn't matter. With the score ending 17-12, it was an illustration to the extreme of the complaints that it isn't "real hockey" being played. Nobody is going all out defensively, the goalies aren't going to be making sprawling desperate saves, and the score is run comically high.

And yet, there was an embarrassing number of "real hockey" thinkpieces written after-the-fact, so it's no wonder the league felt it needed to change the format of the game for this year. They also changed the format of the fan voting process, which, as we all know by now, has backfired spectacularly in the face of the league.

This is where the whole scope of the thing gets weird. There has been so much public handwringing this year by those who write for the league about the inclusion of John Scott and the exclusion of players like Sidney Crosby that no one could truly tell whether the we were supposed to be treating the All-Star game as some super serious Big Deal or a fun but entirely meaningless exhibition game. Making the game 3-on-3 lends to the latter. The number of people still unhappy with the nominees because of perceived snubs lends to the former.

(A little side note on certain players getting snubbed for the game: when you have multiple spots guaranteed to players from the host city and the stipulation that every team must have at least one representative, someone's going to get left out. Either the ASG is a representation of your very best players, or it's a participation ribbon event where we pretend that the parity of the league means that every team has an all-star caliber player. You cannot have it both ways, NHL.)

The thing that most makes it looks like the NHL takes this game super seriously is, ironically, perhaps what makes most fans roll their eyes the hardest: suspensions for skipping the ASG.

Earlier this week, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews withdrew from this weekend’s festivities with an illness. By doing so, he is being forced to sit out the first game back for his team. I don't know what kind of illness he's come down with, especially since it’s apparently bad enough to make the decision several days ahead of time, but if it's a case of him puking all over the Nashville ice or staying home, I’d take the latter, and thus I don't understand the league’s reasoning for the suspension.

We've just seen this same decision made by Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, with the captain of the Metropolitan division withdrawing from the ASG after the last game before the break, with an injury he’s apparently been playing through for some time. He too is accepting the one-game ban, as is his team, for the sake of his own health and potential future success of the Caps.

Red Wings fans saw this happened several years ago when both Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk declined to participate due to injury and were subsequently suspended, the only such a black mark on either of their records.

For a league where its own enforcement of supplemental discipline has become a running joke among fans and players, that's a tough pill to swallow. Even harder to comprehend is the concept that the NHL could be rolling out multi-game suspensions for such a heinous act of skipping the All-Star game.

And yet…

It's one of those things where I can understand that the league doesn't want to be blown off by their own players. I get it, it doesn't look good when your own players come up with convenient injuries to avoid the exhibition. But really. Why does the NHL even hold this game in the middle of the year, when players are more likely to be hurt and possibly don't want to risk aggravating or acquiring an injury in a meaningless game, knowing that their precedent is to suspend players for bowing out? They have to know how silly it looks to fans, that a game that they're supposed to be having fun with is given more gravity than misconduct both on and off the ice, right?

It doesn't seem like it. The handling of the whole John Scott situation was another example of the league insulting its own fans’ intelligence, like none of us would notice that Scott’s trade to Montréal would have conveniently left him on the sidelines, or that they have already made changes to the fan voting process for next year’s ASG. Like we don't know that they’re trying to force this "the ASG is a Big Deal" narrative down our throats despite actions to the contrary.

As fans, we’re taking the All-Star game less seriously than ever, while the NHL continues to insist on the opposite. Each side continues to move further apart from each other in a weird self-feeding cycle of ridiculousness. I don't know what we’ll be left with when it all ends, but we can rest assured knowing it got way overblown in the meantime.