This month the NFL, NBA and NHL host their annual all-star festivities. These events have expanded far beyond the actual playing of a game and into entire weekends of entertainment and activity. For host cities, it can be a tremendous economic boom. Restaurants, hotels, vendors and merchants can make their year on a good showing. Meanwhile, the game itself has become secondary at best, a bastardized and unrecognizable version of the sport at worst. At least, that’s what we adults say while questioning why leagues continue to churn out this pulp.
I admit, for the last several years I’ve been one of those proponents of eliminating all-star games. Having been around professional players in many of the major sports I can tell you they’re not always excited or honored to go. Instead of a few days of rest during a grueling season, they have to fly somewhere and put on a skills exhibition. I vividly remember the late Wade Belak jokingly interrupting an interview I was doing with one of the Nashville Predators all-star players that year and calling it “the curse of being good”. Wade then explained he was just looking forward to his rest and relaxation while the poor “good” players in the league had to give up those days.
Maybe I was even a tad more jaded than most, having been around pro sports, in the locker rooms where players weren’t always excited about these things. But there were those genuinely honored to be selected and excited to be a part of it all.
What has changed my opinion was a realization I had while preparing for this month’s slate of all-star extravaganzas, including the NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. These games are not for the skeptical, cynical adults who happen to be sports fans. They’re not for the million-dollar athletes. They’re not even for the media.
They belong to the hearts and minds of kids.
If I were to ask you – presuming you’re a sports fan – about your favorite all-star game moment, I’d bet it comes from your childhood. From a time before you were spending your own money on tickets and gear, but devoured everything you could about your favorite team or sport. Everything you could get your hands on featuring that team or those players was gold. It was magic. When you’re a kid, sports exist on a plane outside of anything you can comprehend in your day-to-day life.
And so you naturally embrace the showcases of the best talent in the sports you love. The Home Run Derby, Slam Dunk Contest and Hardest Shot might not excite us as adults, but as a kid you’ll be out in the driveway or at the diamond/court/field/rink talking about it the next day. It will dominate school conversations. It will even drive a few youngsters on a determined path to become professional athletes themselves. Why? Because that’s the magic of sport, and there’s no better showcase of the talent in that game than the all-star game.
As adults, we will watch the complete lack of defense in the NBA or NHL ASG and think it’s ridiculous. Kids won’t notice at all. They’ll remember the crazy half-court alley-oop or the sick tic-tac-toe three-way passing play for the goal. Kids wonder if they can fly from the foul line, make the diving catch or clear the roof in left field with a towering drive. And it will further inflame the passion for sports that lives within them, making them lifelong fans who will one day support those franchises with their own hard-earned money.
Yes, as much as I hated to break it to myself, it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about the future.
I’ll leave you with this anecdote to illustrate my point. The normally stoic, self-deprecating Shea Weber had just been selected to the NHL All-Star Game for the first time. I was in the locker room in the clump of media getting the standard cliches about “it’s an honor” and “I couldn’t do it without my teammates”. As the pack dispersed, I decided those quotes weren’t good enough even if they were typical Shea. So I took another tack after the pack scurried away.
I asked Shea what the All-Star Game meant to him as a kid, and what he remembered from watching it back then.
Instantly his face lit up with a smile, and he transported himself back to when it was just the pure joy of hockey. He used words like “awesome” and “cool” while remembering Owen Nolan calling his shot over the shoulder of Dominik Hasek, and then realizing that was going to be him in a few short days. I couldn’t have asked for a better response.
The joy and the magic of sports belongs to the kids.