Is the skills competition now the jewel of all-star weekend?

MONTREAL -- Think about your all-star game viewing habits. What have you cared about over the years? What do you find truly memorable?

Sure, there are somewhat recent moments from the NHL All-Star Game that linger on the brain: Wayne Gretzky's four-goal third period in 1983; Mario's six points in 1988; Owen Nolan's called-shot against Dominik Hasek in 1997.

But something has definitely changed. You could feel it at the media day yesterday: The questions asked of the all-star participants were heavily weighed to tonight's skills competition rather than what should be the main event on Sunday. Those traditional questions -- "Who are you looking forward to playing with?", "What it's going to be like playing on the same side with Rival X?" -- have gone from mandatory to cliché to nonexistent.

Face it: the skills competition is more compelling, interesting and dramatic -- if not nearly as well-paced -- than the all-star game. You know it, I know it and some of the best players in hockey have known it since when they were young fans instead of NHL superstars.

Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks didn't miss a beat when asked which day of all-star weekend he preferred as a kid watching on television: "skills competition."

"I think it's perfect what they do. I think the game this year's going to be even better with the one winner per skill," said Kane. "Guys going out and really showing their own skills. The game is always fun, but the skills competition was always fun to watch when I was younger. Watching the guys, seeing what they were going to do."


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He wasn't alone:

Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks: "I preferred the skills competition. It was just kind of cool to see what different guys could do -- the hardest shot or the fastest skater."

Brian Campbell, Chicago Blackhawks: "Skills, I think. I liked the accuracy shooting."

Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings: "Probably the skills. I think everyone enjoys the skills, because that's where you see the trick shots and the hardest shot and the accuracy shooting. What you don't get to see those guys do very often. It's isolated, it's right there for the fans."

These quotes don't indicate a desire to see the format change dramatically; it's merely personal preference. But at a time when players are dodging all-star duty and facing suspension for doing so, perhaps the realization is that players are a hell of a lot more excited about the skills competition than they are skating in an exhibition game the following night.

There's been plenty of discussion lately about "fixing" the all-star game. Wayne Scanlon of the Ottawa Citizen had an interesting take:

If it were closer to the fall, players would be less fatigued and the memory of the Stanley Cup final would be fresh. With that in mind, let's sound the horn again on a format change.

It has been in this space before -- the best all-star games were the ones that brought the reigning Cup champions against an all-star squad of players from around the league.

In the 1950s and '60s, when the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs were dominant and rosters were more stable, it was fun to compare a team that included role players versus a collection of stars not used to playing together. If you check out the results online, you'll see the games were pretty evenly split, and nobody scored in double figures.

Give the NHL credit for the things it does well. While the skills competition tends to drag out on television (so does the game itself), the skills are still a hit with kids. They care that on Saturday evening, defencemen Zdeno Chara and Sheldon Souray are going to take aim at Al Iafrate's all-time hardest shot record of 105.2 m.p.h., set at the 1993 all-star festival in Montreal.

Exactly. Just like the NHL's best when they were young, new generations of fans are much more apt to enjoy the skills competition than the all-star game.

So don't just keep the skills -- expand them and get creative. Hell, maybe you even make them the centerpiece event on Sunday. The NHL wouldn't be the first pro league to see its skills event trump its all-star game; ask the NBA how much more exciting the slam dunk and three-point competitions have been than the following night's action.

That said, veteran players like Keith Tkachuk are quick to remind that the all-star game itself. still has a gravitas that can't be ignored.

"I think the general public loves the skills competition, obviously. But the game is fine. Everybody wants a chance to see their favorite player," he said.

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