Last month, the NHL and NFL both hosted their All-Star/Pro Bowl games on Jan. 30, with all the glitz and glamour one would expect from an event featuring some of the most recognizable athletes in North America.
Both games showcase the most stacked squads possible playing in a dream match-up where pride and bragging rights are on the line. While both leagues maintain this concept at the core of their all-star games, the 2011 editions really highlighted the stark differences in how the NHL and NFL presents their star-studded exhibition to their fans.
Let’s consider the 2011 NHL All-Star skills competition and game. This was the first time in recent memory that the NHL broke from the traditional conference versus conference format, opting instead to let the players decide the teams in a “playground-style” fantasy draft, where both teams were picked by predetermined captains, like you might see when kids play street or pond hockey.
This new twist not only allowed opportunity for much speculation and debate amongst analysts and fans as to which players might be picked early and who would be the unfortunate soul picked last, but it also provided the NHL with the opportunity to televise the draft live on TSN. This seemed to increase the hype for the game, and really, for anyone who’s not a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, seeing the only Maple Leaf player, Phil Kessel, get picked last by Team Lidstrom was well worth tuning in.
The day before the big game, the NHL All-Star weekend also featured a skills competition, where players were tested in various events to see who skates the fastest, who shoots the hardest, who has the best accuracy with the puck and who can win an elimination shootout. Perhaps the most intriguing event in the skills competition is the breakaway challenge, hockey’s version of the NBA’s All-Star slam dunk contest, in which three players from each team get one minute to show off their most creative dekes and scoring techniques. The winner is then decided by votes texted in from viewers tuning in from across the world. All in all, the NHL All-Star weekend feels like an honest attempt to cater to hockey fans of all ages, as they continue to tweak and shake up the format and try to make the event something worth looking forward to.
And then there’s the NFL Pro Bowl, this year’s Hawaiian vacation for the best players who didn’t make it to the Super Bowl. The Pro Bowl is everything that the NHL All-Star game is not.
Unlike the NHL All-Star game, the Pro Bowl features so many rule changes that the game ends up feeling like an awkward match of touch football played by professionals. Defensive players are stuck in the most simplistic coverage packages, discouraged from making big hits and aren’t allowed to blitz. In fact, most of the time, on passing plays, the defensive and offensive lines barely do anything at all. These are highly-trained athletes, men who have worked their entire lives to finally become recognized as some of the best players in football today, only to find themselves on national television in a situation where they’re completely handcuffed and unable to showcase their talents at all.
The defence is simplified so that the All-Star offences can showcase their skills, but even the wide receivers and running backs seem to mail it in; no one is willing to risk serious injury in a meaningless game.
And that’s the main difference between the NHL and the NFL: despite still being paid exorbitant amounts of money, NHL players come off as down-to-earth guys who realize that the All-Star weekend is for the entertainment of the fans, so they want to go out there and put on a show. The NFL, on the other hand, has so many players with huge egos who reluctantly take part in the Pro Bowl and would rather be preparing for the Super Bowl than playing in some stupid slowed-down exhibition game.
Now that’s strictly my opinion, as I’m sure there are Pro-Bowlers, especially first-time Pro-Bowlers, who relish the opportunity to play in the Hawaiian sun. But consider that the Pro Bowl skills competition, a voluntary event scheduled during the Pro Bowl weekend, was last televised in 2007 and has all but disappeared entirely. This happened because many players refused to participate, for fear of injury.
If the NFL wants to keep the Pro Bowl from slipping further into obscurity, here are a few things they could do to make things more interesting:
Make the game a flag football game. Sure flag football is a far cry from NFL-caliber football, but the NHL markets their All-Star game as a glorified game of pond hockey, so why not do the same with the NFL? All the athleticism would be there, without the dangerous hits.
Re-instate the skills competition, make it mandatory and add a couple events that would make for “must-see TV.”
Don’t hold it between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl. As it stands, any players playing in the Super Bowl can’t play in the Pro Bowl. If the players from the two best teams in the league aren’t in the game, it sort of taints the whole event, doesn’t it?
Until the NFL starts treating the all-star competition like it’s more than a formality, I know I’ll be getting plenty of sleep on Pro Bowl Sunday.