Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 21, 2016

Much Ado About The NHL’s Unlikely All-Star

Hockey fans have been here before. Back in 2007, when the NHL allowed fans to vote as many times as they wanted for the All-Star Game’s starting lineups, a movement sprung up to elect an unlikely player as a way of protesting the voting format. That year defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick, who was then with the Vancouver Canucks, became the pranksters’ darling. An Internet campaign propelled Fitzpatrick into second place among Western Conference defensemen in the early voting despite the fact that in eighteen games with Vancouver he had not tallied a single point. In the end Fitzpatrick finished third with more than 550,000 votes, just 23,000 shy of Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom who was on his way to winning his fifth Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender.

The NHL is constantly tinkering with its mid-season showcase, from the manner in which players are selected to the format of the contest itself. This year fans were asked to vote for the four captains, one from each division. The winning players will head teams that will play two twenty-minute semifinal games of three-on-three hockey, with the winners then facing off in a third twenty-minute final. Once again, fans unhappy with the change in format, or displeased as most NHL fans always are with Commissioner Gary Bettman, or perhaps just folks with too much time on their hands, mounted a campaign during the December voting period to elect a truly undeserving player as one of the four All-Star captains.

Perhaps it’s a tribute to advances in social media since 2007, because this time those intent on creating a meaningless controversy succeeded beyond measure. At the time of the voting 33-year old winger John Scott was playing, well actually mostly not playing, for the Arizona Coyotes. Glendale Arizona was the sixth stop on an itinerant NHL career that began in 2008 with Minnesota, and has run through Chicago, New York, Buffalo and San Jose. In 285 NHL games Scott has tallied all of five goals and six assists. After signing a one-year contract with the Coyotes during the last offseason, Scott has most frequently been a healthy scratch this year. In the eleven contests in which he has seen ice time, he managed just a single assist.

What Scott is good at is fighting and skating to the penalty box. With little speed and limited talent, Scott has fashioned a journeyman career as an enforcer, a player who is always ready to drop the gloves. While he has gone more than three full seasons between scoring goals, he has amassed 542 penalty minutes in NHL rinks from coast to coast.

All of which made him a perfect choice for those fans bent on skewing the vote and skewering the NHL. When the results were announced earlier this month Scott not only won the captaincy of the Pacific division’s team, he garnered more votes than any of the other three division winners. That tally is all the more remarkable given the other three captains are Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, and Jaromir Jagr.

Scott’s election set off a wave of hand-wringing from pundits. One columnist lamented that Scott had “ruined the fan vote,” while another insisted that the league had to change its voting procedures. Both the league and Coyotes management reportedly asked Scott to decline the honor bestowed upon him by fans, many of whom doubtless had never heard of their new hero before the campaign to get him elected began.

Then last week the Coyotes engineered a trade with the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators. The key players in the deal were three defensemen who traded places between the three teams, but Scott was added into the mix as part of the typical work of balancing contracts and salary cap hits. The announcement generated an immediate backlash from a new set of commentators who saw in it the evil hand of Bettman and a league conspiracy to deny Scott his rightful place in the All-Star Game. The conspiracy theorists became all the more certain in their paranoia when the Canadiens immediately dispatched Scott to their AHL minor league affiliate in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Now Scott was not only no longer playing in the Pacific Division, he wasn’t even in the NHL.

The future of hockey in North America hung in the balance for four days, until the Commissioner himself announced that “there was never any doubt” that Scott would serve as the Pacific Division captain and play in the All-Star Game. So assuming he can find a connection from the furthest reaches of Atlantic Canada to Nashville, Scott will be on the ice for All-Star weekend at the end of the month.

Amidst the overwrought back and forth, Scott has seemed to take everything in stride. With a contract paying him $575,000 this season, who can blame him for not wanting to pass up the potential $91,000 he’ll get if the Pacific Division team winds up as the top All-Star squad? At the same time, he expressed no ill will toward the Coyotes, saying he understood the business of hockey and the personnel decisions that are a part of it.

Meanwhile commentators on both sides would do well to remember that this discussion doesn’t involve the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s the All-Star Game. No matter the sport, these annual shows are meaningless exhibitions, a bit of fun for the fans who get to see many of their sports stars (plus in this case John Scott) together on the same rink, or court, or field. That’s all that All-Star Games are, baseball’s silly attempt to give meaning to the Mid-Summer Classic by awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the winning league notwithstanding.

Fan voting is entrenched as part of the All-Star player selection process in all of the major sports. Inevitably from time to time that will produce some unexpected results. In an ultimately meaningless vote, sometimes the electorate will do funny things. When it happens, the best response is to smile and move on. After all, it’s not as if voters were making a loudmouthed real estate developer the frontrunner for the presidential nomination of one of our two major parties. Oh wait.

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