The NHL appears to have gotten the message that its star players want the All-Star Game's skills competitions to be challenging but not debilitating.
It was outright painful to watch seasoned professionals struggle with carrying the puck through some convoluted, light-up gate or fruitlessly send 100 passes toward a tiny net on the other end of the ice. Those competitions were turfed for this year's All-Star Weekend in St. Louis. Instead, the NHL will have its players shoot pucks over the crowd at targets on the ice in an event that's part Topgolf, part Dude Perfect.
Now that's more like it.
Of course, there are many ways the skills competition could increase the fun factor even more. Here are 10 ways to make the All-Star weekend event an even greater spectacle.
Country vs. country
For years, the skills competition was tied to the All-Star Game by having the conferences and the divisions battle one another for superiority. As with the "bragging rights" on the line in the All-Star Game, no one really cared.
But hockey is a team sport, and palpable stakes can take any exhibition and make it more meaningful. What if the skills competition -- and the All-Star Game, for that matter -- were configured with teams made up of Canadians, Americans and two European factions battling for supremacy?
If you're down with this concept, great news: The NHL is planning to recalibrate All-Star Weekend into some kind of international affair next season. Does that mean a return to North America vs. The World, a previously used format? That isn't likely, given how much interest the Canada vs. USA rivalry generates.
Our modest proposal: USA vs. Canada vs. a Sweden/Finland team ... cue the WWE-esque "but can they work together?!" questions ... eh, who knows? Just call it Team Ovechkin and have all the Russians, Czechs, Slovaks and Anze Kopitar play under the banner. Maybe that'll get Ovi to actually show up for an All-Star Game.
Strike that: Next season's game is in South Florida. He's definitely showing up.
An 'American Gladiator'-style obstacle course
The NHL dumped its Puck Control Relay because it finally learned the difference between "difficult painful" and "difficult fun."
Painful: Having players look like helpless beer leaguers as they struggle to carry pucks through light-up gates.
Fun: Having players control the puck while being pummeled by those giant jousting Q-tips from "American Gladiators," wielded by opposing teams' All-Stars. This is exactly how it used to be in the slot every night before the slashing crackdown.
Sticking with the "Gladiators" theme, this could be a creative way for the goalies to get more involved in the competition. It's universally accepted that the best American Gladiators event was the one with the tennis ball cannons. Who among us doesn't want to see Jordan Binnington manning a Gatling gun and spraying Dunlop Pro Tours at the skaters? And don't give me the, "hey, that's dangerous" bit. These people step in front of Shea Weber slap shots.
There's a reason Vince McMahon keeps bringing back 50-year-old wrestlers for his biggest events: Nostalgia is an easy sell.
As much as the NHL has minted new stars in the past decade, there's always going to be a buzz in the crowd when the big names from yesteryear show up. In fact, some of the greatest moments from the league's outdoor games came from seeing retired players face one another in alumni exhibitions. Using retired players -- especially from the home market -- in the All-Star skills competition would have the same effect.
Now, it might be asking a lot to want Mike Gartner to still have his fastest skater wheels at 60 years old, but there are plenty of events in which a nostalgia act could thrive: Are you telling me Peter Forsberg or Sergei Zubov, to mention a recent Hall of Famer, don't still have the hands for something like shot accuracy? Or that Teemu Selanne couldn't shoot, and Martin Brodeur couldn't save, a breakaway attempt?
Considering how many ex-players live in the St. Louis area, this would be an ideal location to trot out some alumni. In fact, we'd be surprised if the NHL doesn't call on some of them for this weekend's events.
Why do we watch sports? To witness the best athletes in the world do what we feebly attempt to do on playgrounds, in gymnasiums and during beer league games.
The same principle applies here: Let's see the NHL's top stars attempt to succeed at that time-tested, between-periods skills competition for the fans in which they shoot the puck from the red line through a tiny hole at the bottom of the net. And let's incentivize this thing properly: The winner of Score-O wins a car, just like the fans do.
You can keep your sumo wrestler suits and tricycle races. The single greatest between-periods gimmick I've ever witnessed at a game is human bowling, and it would be ideal for the NHL All-Star skills competition.
This is just the right amount of ridiculousness for the players. Plus, having an All-Star Game with Chris Kreider that doesn't feature him speeding down the ice before barreling into something seems like a missed opportunity.
The big switch
You know who doesn't get to have fun at the NHL All-Star skills competition? Goalies. It's true that they get their own event, the Save Streak, in which the netminders attempt to make the most consecutive saves in a row. But that's the goalies performing their normal task, which is depriving others of joy.
What if the roles were reversed? What if goalies were to take off their pads and masks, grab skaters' sticks and participate in the other side of the shootout? And what if skaters then strapped on the pads and masks, picked up goalie paddles and attempted to stop them? Aside from the potential of a groin tear by a novice goalie, this is an unbeatable idea.
Fastest skaters relay
Fact: Relay races are more fun than sprints. The dynamics of the race change during each leg. The handoffs -- and the risk of a dropped baton -- are thrilling. Also, relays accentuate teamwork, which, again, is a hallmark of hockey. While we love to see Connor McDavid fly solo in the fastest skater competition, the anticipation of his anchor leg in a hockey relay would be tremendous.
(Also, the baton should totally be a tiny Stanley Cup passed among players. If they're superstitious about touching it, even better.)
NHL Jam, multi-puck edition
Although it's rather unfathomable, there are some people who think 3-on-3 overtime is a bastardization of hockey. Those are the poor souls we have in mind when we suggest the following skills competition: 2-on-2 hockey.
Basically, make it NBA Jam for the NHL: a series of short, 2-on-2 games between skaters, with no goalies. Play within one zone, like a half-court hoops game. It'll be an exhibition of skill, a literal GIF fest. The only thing missing would be a flaming puck for hot shooters, as the NHL clearly frowns upon lighting equipment on fire at the All-Star Game.
But if we must have goalies, let's take it in this direction: Two skaters vs. two skaters plus the goalies, with multiple pucks on the ice at all times, and any of them can be used to score. Heck, make some of them "money pucks" worth more than one goal. Have fun with it.
This is a great idea because everything the NHL has ever imported from the NBA has worked brilliantly, like Gary Bettman.
On-ice dodgeball used to be reserved for mascots and Rob Gronkowski -- so just "mascots," now that we think about it. But in a recent Storm Surge celebration, the Carolina Hurricanes brought dodgeball onto NHL ice:
Nobody makes me bleed my own blood. Nobody! pic.twitter.com/slAW7mfSvW— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) January 22, 2020
Why not bring dodgeball into the NHL skills competition? It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off.
Finally, make it truly the best of the best
Let's talk about Cedric Ceballos.
He played 609 games for five teams in the NBA. He led the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring during 1994-95 and led the association in field goal percentage in 1992-93. But if you remember him, you remember for one thing: winning the slam dunk competition in 1992 by throwing one down while wearing a blindfold. Mention his name nearly 30 years later, and that's still his legacy.
Skills competitions can forge the reputations of players who aren't otherwise perennial All-Stars. We saw that, in a way, with Dylan Larkin in the fastest skater contest. It's entirely possible that more people know him from that achievement than from any of his exploits with the Detroit Red Wings.
The NHL skills competition has become too insular. The NBA has players who aren't in the All-Star Game increase their profiles by participating in the skills competition. The same should happen in the NHL. Take Nikolaj Ehlers of the Jets. His 13.03 seconds at Winnipeg's recent in-house skills competition were faster than any time in the NHL All-Star fastest skater event.
Why not have Ehlers take on McDavid & Co. -- and maybe have that Cedric Ceballos moment?
Or are we missing the more obvious lesson to be drawn from Cedric Ceballos?
Blindfold NHL skills competitions. Maybe next season.