Three-star selection turns out to be a practice full of gas

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 2:57 PM ET

 Like a poor penalty call or a cynical slash, even three-star selections take on hotter focus during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

 Most viewers hang on until the selections are awarded to agree or disagree with the picks. It's always grist for debate in NHL cities.

 So here's something else worthy of discussion: Why three stars?

 Why not one? Or two, or five?

 For that time-honoured reason always so difficult to fathom: Because that's the way it's always been done.

 We've all seen games in which it would be hard to select a single star.

 We've seen others from which a half-dozen could legitimately be designated as superior performers on the night.

 We've seen razor-sharp games in which, if every one of the 40 players was measured by the role he is responsible for, there could be a dozen or more.

 So how come it's three and not a man of the match or one from each team?

 It's a gas -- Esso gas, to be precise.

 Back in the early 1950s, Imperial Oil was the big advertiser on televised games not long after Hockey Night in Canada began airing them in Montreal and Toronto in 1952.

 Imperial was pushing Three Star gasoline and the connection was a neat way to link fuel with athletic performance.

 We were advised by gravel-voiced Murray Westgate in his Esso cap with the oval badge to fill up and to put a tiger in your tank, as the pitch went. (Those of a certain age will remember a promotion involving a tiny tiger tail hanging from automobile fill-up flaps).

 But the tank tiger became extinct and so did Imperial as an advertiser. The Molson family brewmeisters bought controlling interest of the Canadiens and with that leverage, matched Imperial's sponsorship share by 1963.

 In '76, when oil shortages touched off a whole new way of marketing fuel, Imperial Oil pulled out.

 But Three Star has had a lot mileage ever since, anyway, and three star it remains for the post-game nods.

 The manner of selection varies.

 In Toronto, the production company, Molstar -- which does mid-week games on TSN, Sportsnet and the New VR -- makes selections announced at the end of the telecast and in the Air Canada Centre.

 For Saturday games, Toronto Maple Leaf media relations director Pat Park designates a member of the media to select the three stars, while Hockey Night selects its own three.

 Nothing against the number three. It represents the Trinity, stability, periods in hockey, baseball strikes, wise men, blind mice and a lot of other touchstones.

 But it's also a number that, for star-picking purposes, permits waffling.

 How often have you seen the winning team get two stars and the loser one? A lot, right?

 Rarely, you'll see a winning team get all three.

 Third star is often almost a courtesy pick and the guy is often too embarrassed to come out to acknowledge it.

 The rite is one that's definitely position-sensitive. A forward who scores a goal and two assists is almost sure to be in the trio, no matter how many giveaways he committed, while a defenceman whose performance was near-perfect will not get the nod.

 And goaltenders are rarely out of the mix. A shutout, however lucky or easily secured, is almost assured a star, even over a guy at the other end who ceded only two goals against a withering barrage of rubber.

 Exceptional penalty-killers? Forget it.

 But it can work against the better players, too. Superstars such as Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky invariably dominated, but if their domination was not at the usual top level, they'd be ignored.

 That was hardly the case with Rocket Richard one spectacular night. He was accorded all three stars in what could mildly be termed a high-octane night.