The moment no hockey fan will ever forget occurred on a carpet laid out over the ice, as a small man named Gary Bettman handed a million dollar check to a much larger man, the NHL All-Star MVP John Scott. Physical attributes rarely reflect moral standing, but in this case, the image said it all: Bettman's tiny body was obscured by a giant check, and Scott towered above him. No matter how hard the NHL tried to keep him away from Nashville, Scott, the journeyman enforcer, ended up as the star of the game, and Bettman, the league's most powerful executive, had no choice but to fake a smile and relent.
The All-Star Game is rarely a big moment. It is among the most inconsequential times superstar players will spend on ice in their professional careers. But this year's All-Star Game featured a brilliant inverted script that turned a tired, effortless game into the defining moment of a hockey player's career. For years, the NHL has tried to find a format that would make the game interesting. In the end, what made it interesting was a storyline they never wanted.
For reasons unclear, the NHL has fought Scott's inclusion in the game from the very outset. He was voted in by the fans with help from an unusual populist campaign. Maybe some fans saw it as a joke. Maybe some of them wanted to reward a blue collar player. Regardless of the motivation, they wanted him in the game. At the time Scott was a bench player for the Arizona Coyotes. After he won the fan vote, the Coyotes traded him to the Montreal Canadians, who shuttled him to the minor leagues. His All Star game status was up in the air. Eventually, fan pressure kept Scott in the game, even though the NHL tried to get him to give up his All Star roster spot.
And now the NHL has stumbled onto one the most memorable moments in All Star game history. With approximately five minutes to go in the final game of the evening—the format this year was three 20 minute, three-on-three games—three MVP choices appeared on the video board. Fans were asked to tweet their votes. John Scott, who scored two goals, was not among the three. The MVP would receive a Honda minivan, and with a set of twins on the way, Scott, soon after the names were announced, joked with his two eligible teammates, "You guys better give me that van, because I need it."
But hockey fans around the world would have none of it. Upon seeing the MVP choices, the Nashville crowd booed as loudly as they do for Patrick Kane. Fans took it upon themselves to make their own hashtag. Nine official NHL team accounts joined the chorus tweeting #VoteMVPScott, including Edmonton's, whose own player, Taylor Hall, was one of the choices.
During the final five minutes, the fans in Bridgestone Arena chanted "MVP" every time John Scott was on the ice, and they chanted his name when he was on the bench.
In an apt distillation of this year's All-Star saga, the final five minutes of the game featuring vociferous chants for John Scott's MVP case were the only genuine moments of excitement the entire evening. Although the quality of play was obviously higher than previous formats, it was a low bar to clear. Most of the night, the game was a largely sleepy affair where the carving of the ice and random bench commands echoed to the upper deck. With his two goals and an entire arena behind him, the question was no longer whether Scott belonged in the All-Star Game, but whether the game would have meant anything without him.
If you were only aware of the All-Star Game through the media coverage leading up to it—the John Scott saga and the new three-on-three format—you'd be excused for thinking the weekend served some higher purpose. There has been so much back and forth—some genuine, most not—about what the All-Star Game ought to be and whether John Scott's inclusion violated that. These conversations were transparently silly at the time, but even more so when considered in the weekend's context.
For example, consider the Fan Fair, which was held across the street from Bridgestone Arena—350,000 square feet of unadulterated hockey goofiness geared specifically for children. The Fan Fair featured several different games of floor hockey, bubble hockey, an inflatable slide, trivia, mascot story time for the very little ones—mascots sat next to an older woman reading from a children's book about hockey mascots, gesticulating wildly any time the literary hockey mascots did anything—autograph signings with the All-Stars, and of course, photo ops with the Stanley Cup. It is Disneyland for children who love hockey.
Since 1997, the NHL has changed the All-Star Game format three times: the ridiculous North America vs. The World where players were divided based on their geographic roots; the more ridiculous fantasy draft format that had the fundamental flaw of depending on hockey players to have a discernible personality; and now three-on-three. All of these changes were ostensibly to try and make the All-Star Game more appealing, commercially viable, and relevant. None of them worked, because nobody watches the All-Star Game for what happens on the ice. Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference, the original format the NHL scrapped, was the best iteration of the bunch, in no small part because it could be explained to children in one brief sentence. It is no coincidence that during the game's changing formats, the Fan Fair has largely stayed the same.
It's silly the NHL feels the need to ascribe some false sense of self-importance to the All-Star Game. The fact that the Fan Fair took place in a convention center was only fitting, because that is exactly what All-Star Weekend is: a hockey convention where kids can gawk at goofy mascots and play floor hockey, adults can party for a weekend with a pointless sporting event as an alibi, and the NHL can take the credit of gregarious host.
So if fans wanted a journeyman enforcer in the game, so be it. The event is made for them, even if Bettman tries to portray it as something sacred, which doesn't make sense since they've changed the format so much. How can John Scott ruin the game, when even the NHL doesn't know what the game should be?
After his coronation, Scott was asked why he decided to write the Players Tribune article, which detailed his All-Star selection saga and revealed how an NHL official tried to convince him to bow out of the game by asking, "Do you think this is something your kids would be proud of?"
"I just got sick and tired of reading articles portraying me as a slow-footed goon," he said.
The league has tried for a decade to make the All-Star Game meaningful. John Scott finally did it.