Monday, 1 February 2016

The Post-John Scott Era: Where Do We Go From Here?

It's almost 2:00 AM Pacific time right now and I'm still buzzing about an NHL All-Star game that started about 12 hours ago. Not even when I was a wide-eyed and as-yet-un-jaded little kid was I this captivated by an All-Star game, but here we are. I don't know where this post is going to go as of yet, but the whole John Scott thing left me with tons of thoughts and feelings and reflections that I feel I should share because, well, there's really no good reason, but why not eh?

I think it's important to look forward to where the NHL can go from here, but before we do that, let's take a moment to stop and appreciate what an absurd, stupid, ridiculous, beautiful, and amazing sequence of events we just witnessed. You know the story now I'm sure so I don't need to paraphrase, but holy shit you guys John Scott scored two goals in an All-Star tournament, and deservedly won the MVP award. This is the cheesy Disney storybook crap our adult selves all scoff at for being unbelievable to the point of absurdity, and it absolutely just unfolded in front of all of us. What a time to be alive.
And we (I mean the nebulous internet "we") are all guilty of a couple probably inconsiderate things in this whole spectacle, one of which is underestimating the skill of John Scott to the point where we'd thought it would be funny to see the stark contrast between him and the best players in the game. No one wasn't expecting a car crash at the very outset. We didn't start rooting for John Scott out of the goodness of our hearts. But boy, did that ever change in a hurry.

You have to admit, we got a bit lucky settling on not just a "player like John Scott," but John Scott specifically to be put through this whole ordeal (and, let's not forget, it looked like an ordeal there for a while). The man handled it absolutely perfectly, and I'm not sure that there are many other guys self-aware enough to be in on the joke, and smart enough to turn the joke on it's head and prove everybody wrong.

Scott, though, was both. There was evidence he was aware of his relative shortcomings well before this - from posing for pictures with Nathan Gerbe to wearing t-shirts with a photo of him celebrating a rare NHL goal of his - so on a personal level, I didn't feel as uncomfortable with the whole thing as a lot of the fun police wanted the greater internet to feel. In my eyes, if there was ever one guy to be able to laugh with us at himself, it was John Scott. But I never expected him to be able to turn around and say, "Hey, you wanna know what would be more fun...?"

And I think the NHL deserves a bit of begrudging credit for getting out of their own damn way in the end and letting it all happen. Not a lot of credit, mind you, but we really should acknowledge they could have put a fork in this whole thing. Sure, they tried to, but they could've stepped in a lot more forcefully and straight up banned Scott from attending. They didn't. They even allowed the write-in MVP vote to happen at the end. Yes, it's what they should have been doing all along, but just simply "giving the fans what they want" hasn't seemed to be a strong suit of the NHL's. They did give us what we wanted this time, and it was spectacular.

Just as Nick Mercadante tongue-in-cheekly brought up this morning, the tinfoil hat part of me wonders if the NHL simply played the perfect heel after some initial mishandlings of the whole thing. If the league really really did not want John Scott in Nashville this weekend, he likely wouldn't have been in Nashville this weekend. But there he was, propped up front-and-centre of all TV coverage, giving the largest and longest media availabilities, and receiving a giant novelty cheque from Gary Bettman at the end of what was the NHL's most successful All-Star weekend possibly ever. If they don't know, the NHL should know by now that the NHL makes a perfect villain in stories like this. It still would surprise me if they did in fact help this along rather than simply gritting their teeth and smiling through the whole thing, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility.

How great a spectacle the whole weekend was is undeniable though, and a lot of that actually didn't have to do with Scott. Yes, he was the everyman we all rallied around, but the 3-on-3 tournament format was an excellent change from the stale 5-on-5, 60-minute drudge through guys half-assing it that we've seen in the past (side note: If you'll let me pad my ego for a second, I was all over this last All-Star game), and personalities like P.K. Subban, Brent Burns, and Roberto Luongo really shined through in the skills competition, and made that worth our while.

With personalities like that, and guys more willing to skate and compete with a shorter, more wide-open format, I think there's more than enough there to keep the game fresh, entertaining, and exciting for years to come. We're never going to top That Weekend In Nashville, but that doesn't mean that future events have to be boring or uninteresting. What's important though is that the Subbans and the Burnses and the Luongos are allowed a forum to have fun with it and where showmanship is encouraged over the stale don't-be-controversial-so-say-nothing mantra that's permeated hockey these days. The NHL has some really funny and engaging and good people able to carry an event like this outside of John Scott. So let's allow them to do so.
Of course, the question still remains how to avoid any awkward situations like this in the future. We all had our fun this year and it was phenomenal, but I don't see this happening and being special more than once. Remember how cool the Winter Classic was? Remember how the NHL went to like five per year and nobody outside of the involved markets watched anymore? Yeah, let's not have that happen here. I'm not even a fan of the "All-Star Journeyman" idea. John Scott was the very definition of lightning in a bottle, and it's going to take extreme and ridiculous circumstances again to captivate us as Scott did. No one's going to be pulling nearly as hard for, say, Jason Chimera as they did for Scott.

So here's my proposal with how to handle the NHL All-Star voting next season: instead of being married to the idea of league-wide ballots, break it up and make it more of a grassroots thing to engage each individual fanbase. Because the NHL does want to have one representative from each team in a perfect world, have each team nominate 4 or 5 or 6 of their own players. From that group, the fans of each team then vote for the one player they want to represent them at the All-Star game. The rest of the 14 or so spots can be named by the NHL or whomever makes that decision.

I think this would accomplish a few things: first off, it would eliminate the "joke" ballot and ensure something like this never happens again, keeping 2016 special and guarding against less ideal outcomes. Second, it gives the fans more power, and therefore (hopefully) more investment in the game itself. And finally, it encourages fan participation in the whole All-Star event on a more micro/grassroots level. No fan connects to the NHL as a corporate entity or most teams in the league. They have a favourite team and favourite players, so engage the fans through how they connect and invest in the whole experience rather than doing one big vanilla umbrella ballot. If I'm a Canucks fan, I really don't care who, say, Columbus' representative is. Why should the NHL continue to use a voting system where my general apathy towards the Blue Jackets affects which Blue Jacket that Columbus' fans see in the game?

To sum it up, I think the whole All-Star experience might have peaked in 2016 in Nashville. It was literally a storybook ending to a straight up insane series of events that, to my knowledge, is virtually unprecedented in all of North American pro sports. It was genuine, pure fun, and that's all you can ever ask for from the All-Star game. That doesn't mean that All-Star weekend is doomed to have to go back to the boring and pointless exercise it was previously. The new format was a huge success in itself, and the fan voting formula can be amended to be better for the fans and "safer" for the NHL too. There was a ton of good to come out of this past weekend in Nashville. Let's make sure it all stays good.

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