The last time the NHL All Star Game was played, gasoline was north of $3.60 per gallon and heading higher. Rick Nash was a Blue Jacket. Apple closed at just over $60.00 per share. You get the idea. An ugly lockout and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics intervened, postponing Columbus' chance to play host to one of the great parties in sports. The greatest players in the game will gather for two days of fun, frivolity and good-spirited competition.
The NHL All Star Game itself is, of course, only a shadow of a "real" game that these guys could put on if put in the right circumstances. Such is the nature of All Star games in contact sports, where the risk/reward of the millions of dollars spent on player contracts vs. the possibility of injury vaporizing those investments just does not compute. Still, the NHL gathering is light-years ahead of either the NBA All Star game or the NFL's Pro Bowl. The MLB All Star Game is, of course, a more competitive event, as baseball is not a contact sport, and home field advantage in the World Series is at stake. Still, the pure creativity and skill that is on display when the NHL trots out its best - at both the game itself and the skills competition - is tough to match. Is it epic sports competition? Clearly not. Is it terrific theatre and entertainment, highlighting some ridiculous skill? You bet.
When the selected players are drafted into teams on Friday night (as they were in 2011 and 2012) it will represent merely the latest in a series of formats the game has seen. Let's take a look at the genesis and transfiguration of the NHL All Star Game over the years.
In The Beginning . . .
The All-Star Game itself made its debut in 1947. Prior to that time, there had been a few games billed as "All Star" contests, but these were more akin to benefits, expressly designed to assist the families of former players who had died or been incapacitated. Three of these "benefit" games were played in the 1930's. The first, in 1934, was in honor of Ace Bailey, who had famously (or infamously) sustained a fractured skull at the hands of the legendary Eddie Shore (yes, "Old Time Hockey" Eddie Shore). The second game came in 1937, honoring the memory of the Canadiens' Howie Morenz, who sustained a badly fractured leg that January, and died of a heart attack while still hospitalized for that injury. The final benefit game came in 1939, providing for the family of Babe Siebert, who was scheduled to assume the head coaching duties in Montreal that season, but drowned in an off-season accident.
Despite the rather somber reasons for hosting these early All Star games, interest slowly grew in making such contests a regular part of the NHL season. It took the better part of a decade, but it finally came to pass in 1947. That year, the game debuted in its initial configuration-- an October contest pitting the current Stanley Cup champion team against a team of All Stars. The All Stars came from the 1st and 2nd All Star Teams picked annually, supplemented with two players from each of the four United States NHL franchises. The Stanley Cup champion had the honor of hosting the contest (except in 1948, when Chicago somehow finagled the game from Toronto.)
The All Stars prevailed over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first game, 4 - 3, inaugurating a trend that had the All Stars defeat the Stanley Cup champions in 12 of the 19 games played under this format between 1947 and 1969. In two seasons -- 1951 and 1952 -- the format was abandoned in favor of an experiment that pitted the First All Star team, supplemented with players from the U.S. cities, against the Second All Star team, augmented with players from the Canadian cities. Both contests ended in ties, ending the experiment.
The 1966-67 season was the final season before the NHL doubled in size -- from six to twelve -- and added an entire Western Division. That season also saw the All Star Game move from its traditional October date to its current calendar slot of January, accounting for the lack of any game in calendar year 1966. That game was also notable for being the only shutout in All Star Game history, with the Montreal Canadiens defeating the All Stars, 3 - 0.
The Expansion Era
When expansion came in 1967, the Champions vs. All Stars format survived for two years. In January 1969, the format changed to a geographic battle, pitting the fledgling Western Division against the Eastern Division. The upstarts managed a 3 - 3 tie with the veterans in the opening match, which featured the All Star coaching debut of one Scotty Bowman.
The Eastern Division won three out of the next five contests, before the All Star Game became the Wales Conference vs. the Campbell Conference for the 1975 game. That format would remain until the reversion to the Eastern/Western configuration after the 1993 season. During that stretch, the All Star Game had its first overtime (in Buffalo for the 1978 game) and saw the return of 51-year-old Gordie Howe for his 23rd and final All Star Game in Detroit in 1980. That game was also the final All Star spin for Phil Esposito and brother Tony, and saw the All Star debut of a kid by the name of Wayne Gretzky. Just over two weeks later, in Lake Placid, New York, a group of young U.S. hockey players shocked the Soviet Union in the "Miracle on Ice," then beat Finland to earn the gold medal. Quite a month for hockey.
Speaking of the Soviet Union, the lone departure from the All Star format during this era came in 1979, when the All Star Game was abandoned entirely in favor of the Challenge Cup -- a three-game series between an NHL All Star team and the Soviets, conducted at Madison Square Garden. For the record, the Soviet Union won the series, 2 - 1, including a 6 - 0 shellacking in the deciding game. It may be pure coincidence that the All Star Game returned the next year . . .
Overall, the Wales Conference held a 12 - 5 edge over the Campbell Conference during the era, and put together the highest goal total in All Star Game history in the 1993 game, thrashing the Campbell 16 - 6. In 1994, the game once again became an Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference affair, to coincide with the NHL restructuring.
The Labor Strife Era
After the East edged the West 9 - 8 in the 1994 game, the 1995 game was wiped out by the labor unrest of that year, marking the first time that the game was bypassed for a reason other than a competing format. When the All Star Game resumed in 1996, it retained the East/West format for that season and the 1997 game (both won by the East), before a new format emerged: North America vs. The World. With the advent of more and more European skaters, this seemed like a way to highlight that contribution. The North American won three of those contests, with The World winning two of the five games played in that format. It's fairly impressive that the North American squad could beat a team that featured Pavel Bure, Jari Kurri, Teemu Sellane, Peter Forsberg, Jaromir Jagr, Saku Koivu, Igor Larionov, Daniel Alfredsson and Nicklas Lidstrom on the ice, and two guys named Nikolai Khabibulin and Dominik Hasek in net. It's also noteworthy that the 2001 game under this format featured the All Star Game record for total goals -- with 26 -- in a 14 - 12 North American victory.
The format again reverted to East vs. West for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, with the East winning both, before the labor hammer fell again. The 2005 lockout again resulted in a cancellation of the game, and the resulting CBA that called for the cancellation of the All Star Game in Olympic years resulted in the cancellation of the 2006 game as well, in favor of the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy. The East won two of the three games between 2007 and 2009, before the Vancouver Olympics pre-empted the 2010 contest.
The current team drafting format premiered in 2011, when Team Lidstrom defeated Team Staal, and was followed the next year by Team Chara's victory over Team Alfredsson. Then the lockout/Olympics one - two punch arose again, bringing us to the 2015 game in Columbus.
Not surprisingly, Montreal has hosted the most All Star games, with 12, filled by Toronto with eight and Detroit with five. Chicago has hosted the game three times, with Minnesota, Los Angeles, Boston, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Vancouver holding the game twice each. Former NHL cities Atlanta and Hartford each hosted the game once, and with Columbus holding the game this year, every other current NHL franchise has hosted the game once, with the exceptions of Nashville, Winnipeg and Anaheim. Nashville enters the fold next year, leaving only the Jets and Ducks out in the cold.
The point here, of course, is that it is both an honor and an incredibly rare opportunity to have your city host this event. Even Original Six members Boston and New York have only hosted the game twice. So, Columbus, enjoy every minute of the experience, put your best foot forward, and show the hockey world what the city is made of. You never know when you'll get another chance.