The NHL All-Star Weekend is returning to its roots — and bringing back an old favorite.
When the showcase lands in Toronto this February, it’ll be as an expanded three-day event with NHL All-Star Thursday added ahead of the usual Friday skills competition and Saturday All-Star Game. The highlight of its Thursday festivities will be the league’s first All-Star player draft in nearly a decade, with four All-Star captains — and their celebrity captain partners — drafting teams for Saturday’s contest live in front of fans at Scotiabank Arena.
Following the draft, which begins at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, Feb. 1, the NHL will hold a tribute ceremony honoring members of the 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs and then stage a 3-on-3 event with the Professional Women’s Hockey League.
There is also a completely revamped skills format for Friday to come.
The NHL had been thinking about refreshing its All-Star Weekend for years. It has held three previous player drafts between 2011 and 2015 but in recent years have iced more traditional division-based tournaments.
This time around, the league’s host city of Toronto provided the perfect backdrop to finally roll out a few changes.
“It’s a hockey-crazed crowd up there that just wants more and more,” said Steve Mayer, the NHL’s Chief Content Officer. “We’d bantered around other ideas and just decided, ‘Let’s see whether we can add an extra day.’ We held the player draft years ago and it was good, but we drifted away from it. And over the course of the last few years, we’ve talked about it returning just as an added piece to the weekend. And we have also heard from our players and our fans that, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be interesting if we brought it back?’ We think it just adds to the overall week of activities for All-Star, and it’s something that if it works out, it’ll be here to stay.”
Mayer said the league will determine its four All-Star captains based on their celebrity pairing. The NHL is targeting “passionate hockey fans” for those roles, some of whom may already have existing relationships with certain players or ties to a particular club. Together, the captains will pick from the pool of available All-Stars until there are four left; a special guest will then assign those players to their respective teams.
There will still be a fan vote element as well beginning in early January, where fans can select 12 players to compete in the All-Star Game. The league will announce its player and celebrity captains in January, too. The hope is to enliven the whole event with some unpredictable and amusing partnerships.
“That dynamic [of player and celebrity] this time around is going to be really fun, very unique,” Mayer said. “We’re looking for humor in these events, we’re looking to bring out the player personality, we’re looking at something that is going to be memorable. We’ve learned from doing it in the past.”
Hockey fans are likely to recall how Phil Kessel — then a member of the Maple Leafs — was picked last in the NHL’s inaugural “Fantasy Draft” at the 2011 All-Star Game in Raleigh, North Carolina. Then the league decided its last man standing deserved a car at the next player draft, encouraging Washington Capitals‘ star Alex Ovechkin to beg not to be chosen so he could take home some new wheels.
It’s that sort of energy the NHL is hoping to tap into again.
“The player personality comes out in an event like this,” Mayer said. “They’re talking, they’re either raising their hand to be picked or putting their hand down so they wouldn’t get picked by certain teams. You’ve got all these great dynamics of a draft with former teammates, current teammates, friends from growing up. It’s a pretty cool opportunity for players to draft people that they know and build their own team.”
Mayer said the NHL solicited feedback from the players’ association about how to upgrade the All-Star Weekend experience for players themselves. Tapping back into the draft only made sense — especially considering one of its original creators happens to be Maple Leafs president and alternate governor Brendan Shanahan.
Shanahan was working for the league in 2011 when he and fellow former NHLer Rob Blake came up with the idea of a player fantasy draft. When Toronto agreed to take on the All-Star Game this year, it only made sense to revive the player draft, too.
“It was originally thought of as bringing hockey back to its roots and letting the players pick the teams,” Shanahan said. “We all remember playing road hockey and standing in a big group and having a couple of guys starting to pick teams and how that created fun and anxiety for people doing the picking and people being picked. The motivation behind it was just having a little bit of fun and asking the players to sort of go back to their roots. Sometimes, [All-Star Weekend] is in a warm-weather place [which guys like], but I also think when you have an opportunity to go to an Original Six city and celebrate the game’s history, that’s important too.”
The league will spotlight Toronto’s background with its ceremony acknowledging the 1967 Leafs. Every living member of that team — the last to win a Stanley Cup in Toronto — is expected to be in attendance, and Mayer expects an “emotional” response from the crowd. And from there, the NHL was eager to give the newly formed PWHL a standalone 3-on-3 showcase of its own this year as opposed to just including a few players in the mix Friday or Saturday.
The NHL skills competition is also going through a revamp, with details still being firmed up. The events themselves will veer closer to hockey skills rather than some recent competitions like the dunk tank at last year’s NHL All-Star Game in South Florida. There’s also expected to be a greater emphasis on superstar players during the evening.
“Part of the skills changes are after conversations with our players. We don’t want to just assume that we’re good,” Mayer said. “We always feel like we can be better. So, we talked to the players, we talked to the fans, we’re talking to our broadcasters, we get a lot of input. We don’t need to make changes for the sake of changing but sometimes it just feels right, especially when you’ve done something for [so many] years in a row. And this year it just felt right. They’re not dramatic changes; they’re subtle changes that at the end of the day, we think will improve the event.”
“The NHL is responding to feedback from players,” Shanahan said. “From what I’ve heard, I think players around the league have provided [their thoughts] and I think part of just the excitement is that they will have had a hand in helping redesign the All-Star Game itself.”
Mayer gives credit to the league’s team behind the scenes for brainstorming and ultimately creating a reimagined All-Star Weekend that it is confident players and fans will embrace.
“We’re not sitting on our laurels. We’re always looking to be better, we’re always looking to be a little more interesting,” Mayer said. “You’re going to see a general theme and that is an added Thursday night, a new skills format, the game now will be different because it’s not just going to be the division against division, but these teams that we draft against each other. It just gets us all fired up. We’re enlivened by all these format changes.”
Tickets to NHL All-Star Thursday will be available via Ticketmaster starting Tuesday, December 5th at 10 a.m. ET.
ESPN senior NHL Writer Greg Wyshynski contributed to this report.