Leave it to the National Hockey League to show why sports fans can’t have nice things.
Like all professional sports leagues, the NHL has struggled to create a buzz for its annual All-Star game. Like other professional sports, the all-star game has become a showcase for the best athletes to essentially play one big pick-up game that would have every person in an over 50 league irked at an utter lack of defense being played. In the last two decades, the NHL has been desperately trying to figure out a format that would draw viewers to the game at a time when the NHL has consistently become the lowest-rated of the four major professional sports leagues in North America. In 1998 the league briefly changed the format of the game from being conference versus conference to having a world team versus a North American team. This format lasted for five years before being replaced by the traditional conference format again in 2003. However, the league again tweaked the format in 2011 and went with a “fantasy draft” concept where fans chose 6 players and the league chose 36 players for a total of 42. Once these players were selected, the players themselves then voted on two “captains” who would pick their teams, just like a fantasy sports draft.
However, the NHL again experienced All-Star game ADD and chose to tweak the format for this year’s event. In doing so, it was announced that the format would be moved to a 3-on-3 tournament with each of the four NHL conferences having a team. There would be two 20-minute games, with the two winners then facing off in the championship. The NHL believed that this format would echo the recent success of overtime, which for the first time has consisted of a 3-on-3 period this year and has been a hit with fans and players alike. To help drum up additional support for this new format, the NHL even opened up fan voting to allow for fans to select the top player from each conference to participate in the game, scheduled for Sunday, January 31st in Nashville. The NHL honestly believed that nothing could go wrong.
They apparently have never used the internet.
Once it was announced that NHL fans could select their own candidate for all-star, they immediately went to work and selected the unlikeliest of candidates: 33-year-old journeyman defenseman John Scott. Scott was only known to the most dedicated hockey fans as he had played for 6 different teams over his eight professional seasons and has amassed a total of 11 points in his professional career. This season, he had played in 11 games for the Arizona (formerly Phoenix) Coyotes and had registered a single assist to go with his 25 penalty minutes. What seemingly began as a joke campaign actually picked up steam over the two months of internet voting. NHL fans rabidly logged in and voted for Scott to be the player representative for the Pacific Conference. Scott himself initially dismissed the campaign by saying, “It’s a fun little thing and hopefully it’ll die down over time. I definitely don’t want to be voted into the all-star game. It would be cool, but I definitely don’t deserve it at this point.” In fact, the league stopped broadcasting vote totals with two weeks to go and Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly was forced to concede that the league “would honor” the fan vote regardless of who was chosen. When all was said and done, Scott had been named a conference captain along with legitimate NHL stars Alex Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr, and Patrick Kane.
But then a funny thing happened: Scott became humbled by the whole experience and began to embrace it.
And the world began to see beyond John Scott the hockey player and saw John Scott the human being. San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton called Scott, his former teammate, “one of the best guys ever.” The world learned that Scott was a father of two children and that his wife was due to have twins the very weekend the All-Star game was set to be played in Nashville. By being selected, Scott not only could earn a bonus but could also have an opportunity to split the $1 million prize awarded to the winning team. For a soon-to-be father of four who makes $750,000 a year, that could be a nice bit of pocket change to use for his rapidly expanding family. Scott realized the amazing opportunity that had been presented to him and said:
“It’s one of those things where I never thought I’d be able to get to go, so when I found out it was a possibility my family was like, ‘you have to go. It’s going to be so cool. They’re excited for it – probably more excited than I am. It’ll be one of those ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experiences.”
So, everybody wins, right?
Well, not exactly. Leave it to the NHL to masterfully screw up this feel-good story. Rather than simply laugh off the incident and then tweak the voting rules for next season, both the NHL and Arizona Coyotes tried to save face and they asked Scott to remove himself from the All-Star game to avoid them looking foolish. Naturally Scott refused and when he did, the Arizona Coyotes decided to trade him to the Montreal Canadians this past Friday and the Canadians immediately sent Scott down to the AHL, making him ineligible to participate in an All-Star game where he had been named a captain and was that game’s top vote getter. Now, not only would Scott not be able to earn the bonuses associated with the game but he, his two children, and his pregnant wife would have to move from Arizona to Hamilton, Ontario in the middle of winter.
The NHL is taking a huge publicity hit for their actions and rightfully so. They’ve done the impossible: They’ve gotten fans to care even less about the All-Star game. At a time when the league was set to introduce its exciting new four-team, 3-on-3 format it now has to answer questions as to how and why they are ignoring the will of the fans and refusing to honor their vote. In addition, they also have to answer why they chose to make John Scott out to be a villain when he had nothing to do with the league’s gross incompetence and only wanted to use his unique opportunity to help provide for his wife and children. To blatantly ignore fans and intentionally scapegoat one of your own players is not a good look for the league and it exemplifies just how terribly the league has screwed up what should have been a simple resolution. Rather than force John Scott out of town, the league should have simply taken the hit and allowed him to participate in the All-Star game. That, it itself, would have been the ratings bonanza that the league has been desperately seeking. Instead they threw away that opportunity to avoid looking foolish yet instead of foolish, the league now looks petty, vindictive, and heartless.
And nobody wants to watch an All-Star game of a league that doesn’t respect its fans or its players.