SUN Hockey Pool

Time to realign stars

CHRIS STEVENSON

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

The NHL all-star break is upon us and other than the anticipation of a chance to judge Brett Hull's fashion sense, there's not much to get excited about.

Hull panned the NHL's new tight-fitting uniforms, which will be unveiled during the all-star break, saying "that's one of the reasons I quit is because I knew they were coming out."

He also called the Buffalo Sabres' new sweater "completely ugly," which would indicate he does know what he's talking about.

A similar description could be used to describe the run-up to this year's all-star game as the NHL dodged a PR bullet the size of Mike Commodore's coif.

Fans hijacked the voting and almost installed journeyman defenceman Patrick Fitzrory as one of the starters.

About the only truth that became evident from the fan voting is there isn't much to do in Western New York State during the winter, apparently, than sit at your computer and vote for NHL all-stars.

That's where the "Vote For Rory" campaign started and Buffalo fans got three Sabres onto the team, none of them the best at their position this year.

So, what to do?

The best remedy, of course, is to just cancel the whole thing and put the extra time into the schedule, maybe cutting down one of those four-games-in-six-nights grinds for most of the teams.

But given the NHL uses the all-star break to schmooze a bunch of its corporate types and gets a chance to charge a mortgage payment for a ticket to the skills competition and the game itself, that's not going to happen.

There have been times when the NHL did use the all-star break to its advantage. The 1979 Challenge Cup and the Rendez-Vous 1987 formats saw NHL all-stars play the Soviet national teams and the games were good.

That's lost its lustre given there isn't a Soviet Union anymore.

We can't even get excited about the Wales vs. the Campbells (remember those great orange sweaters?)

There was a couple years of excitement when they switched to Canada vs. The World, or whatever it was.

Honestly, the all-star game needs something fresh, something that shows off the speed of the game, features its stars at top speed, gives them room to move and has at least a hint of competition about it.

So (deep breath), how about an eight-team, four-on-four tournament?

It's not as complicated as it sounds.

Honestly.

I've put a good 20 minutes of thought into this.

The teams would represent the seven big hockey nations with Canada getting two teams (I'm making the rules here) to make a nice even number along with the USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

I toyed with the idea of giving my native Quebec its own team, but upon discovering there are hardly any defencemen from Quebec in the NHL (Philippe Boucher and Francis Bouillon are the Big Two), I opted for Canada East and Canada West teams.

The teams would be divided into two divisions: Canada East, Russia, Sweden and Slovakia in one (Free Agency Division) and Canada West, Finland, USA and Czech Republic (Salary Arbitration Division).

EIGHT PLAYERS

The teams would be composed of eight players: A goaltender, three defencemen and five forwards (or nine players, if two goaltenders are deemed necessary. Another option is to just invite a couple of extra 'keepers -- the next best statistically -- to keep on standby, regardless of nationality.)

Sorry, fans and Rory, no voting for you.

The selection would be up to the country's hockey federation or even a panel of NHL general managers and NHL operations people if the NHL wants to keep it "in-house."

Coaches? Probably don't need 'em (sorry, boys, but who would listen, anyway?)

There would be a round-robin in each division, making a total of 12 games. I'd go back to the weekend schedule with six games Friday night and seven on Saturday (one three-hour and one 3-hour block, including the final).

The top team in each division would advance to the final.

Games would be 20-minutes (two-minute intermission between 10-minute periods) with whistles only for goals and penalties (the offended player would be awarded a penalty shot). That should leave enough time for TV commercials (let's remember who pays the bills) in each one-hour block.

That means players on the teams that make it to the final would play a total of four games, a playing commitment of roughly two hours over two days (compared to three hours to play the regular all-star game plus whatever it takes to partake in the skills competition).

The skills competition has proven popular, but it might have to be axed to save time (given the format of the games, there should be plenty of skills on display).

KEEP PART OF SKILLS EVENT

If the players and TV folks would agree to a slightly bigger time commitment, I'd say keep some aspects of the skills (the target shooting, hardest shot and fastest skater), hold them during a break between games each day and have the points earned go toward the team total.

To encourage both offence and defence, a team's goal differential will be added or subtracted from points earned for wins. (It's not as complicated as it sounds. If a team wins all three games by a total score of 27-20, it would get six points for the three wins and another seven for a positive goal differential. There's less chance of a tie in the standings that way). Tied games (unlikely, I'm guessing) would go straight to a shootout.

All the players would be wired up for sound.

If the goal is to have a TV event that has lots of scoring, an element of competition and puts the stars in the spotlight, this would do the trick.

Throw in a charity component (each player gets to designated a charity of his choice) and a nice trophy (don't get that guy who designed the World Cup, though) and away you go.

I'd watch that.

Which is more than I can say heading into this year's game.

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FREE AGENCY DIVISION

CANADA EAST

G Martin Brodeur

D Rob Blake

D Chris Pronger

D Dan Boyle

F Martin St. Louis

F Vincent Lecavalier

F Joe Thornton

F Marc Savard

F Sidney Crosby

SWEDEN

G Henrik Lundqvist

D Niklas Lidstrom

D Mattias Nordstrom

D Mattias Ohlund

F Michael Nylander

F Daniel Alfredsson

F Henrik Zetterberg

F Henrik Sedin

F Mats Sundin

RUSSIA

G Evgeni Nabokov

D Andrei Markov

D Sergei Gonchar

D Sergei Zubov

F Alexander Ovechkin

F Evgeni Malkin

F Maxim Afinogenov

F Ilya Kovalchuk

F Pavel Datsyuk

SLOVAKIA

G Peter Budaj

D Zdeno Chara

D Andrej Meszaros

D Lubomir Visnovsky

F Marian Hossa

F Marek Svatos

F Pavol Demitra

F Marian Gaborik

F Ladislav Nagy

SALARY ARBITRATION

CANADA WEST

G Cam Ward

D Wade Redden

D Scott Niedermayer

D Sheldon Souray

F Joe Sakic

F Dany Heatley

F Jarome Iginla

F Patrick Marleau

F Ray Whitney

USA

G Ryan Miller

D John-Michael Liles

D Brian Rafalski

D Mathieu Schneider

F Bill Guerin

F Scott Gomez

F Erik Cole

F Brian Rolston

F Brian Gionta

FINLAND

G Miikka Kiprusoff

D Kimmo Timonen

D Joni Pitkanen

D Tony Lydman

F Teemu Selanne

F Olli Jokinen

F Saku Koivu

F Jere Lehtinen

F Jussi Jokinen

CZECH REPUBLIC

G Dominik Hasek

D Filip Kuba

D Tomas Kaberle

D Michal Rozsival

F Jaromir Jagr

F Martin Straka

F Martin Havlat

F Patrick Elias

F Peter Sykora


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