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ABC broadcast team: NHL All-Star Game a celebration of players

It was a day after the Kings defeated the Islanders in New York, and Emily Kaplan said she was waiting for a bruise to appear on her left forearm. It had been only hours since the ABC/ESPN inside-the-glass NHL reporter had been struck by a wayward puck.

She didn’t wince. Not even when asked why a serious hockey fan, or even a casual one, should tune into Saturday’s NHL All-Star Game at T-Mobile Arena that has produced final scores such as 17-12 and 16-6.

Fair enough, she said upon beginning what amounted to a Paul Coffey-type rush about the game’s redeeming qualities.

“Well, for the first time since before a lot of hockey fans were born, ESPN has the rights. We like stars, we like dazzle, we love athletes who play sports,” said the cheerful Kaplan, who covered the NFL for Sports Illustrated before being hired by ESPN in 2017. “We’re going to showcase all of that, with a few wrinkles.”

She referred to the current era as a “golden time” for hockey.

“There’s never been more skill in the game, more talent, more speed,” the 30-year-old said. “We’re getting a big youth movement, but there also are legendary stars who will be there. There’s going to be a large celebration of that.”

Interest wanes

Perhaps so, but interest in All-Star Games across the board that once flowed is now stuck on ebb. In 1976, the baseball All-Star Game attracted 36.3 million viewers. Only 8.2 million tuned in last season.

And last year’s shinny exhibition the NHL still refers to as an All-Star Game attracted only 1.7 million viewers, fewer than the 2.1 million that watched last fall’s NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on TV.

Said Kaplan about the paucity of physical play and pace at the All-Star Game: “I know they’re not always putting in 100 percent effort, because the most important thing for a hockey player is to win the Stanley Cup — they don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize them being available to their team.”

As she said about my initial question, fair enough.

The NHL All-Star Game is actually an event in which four teams, representing each of the league’s divisions, play a three-on-three format in a two-round knockout tournament. Each game consists of two 10-minute halves, neither of which is expected to produce a fight (see Howe, Gordie, 1948 All-Star Game) or even a two-minute minor for interference.

So when the goals start piling up, how does ESPN on ABC discourage viewers from switching channels to the Purdue-Michigan basketball game or chipping and putting from Pebble Beach?

Celebrating the game

Given what sports fans have endured with COVID, a hockey All-Star Game featuring the biggest stars or showing off in the Skills competition (feel free to use “Trevor Zegras” and “lacrosse goal” in the same sentence) is something worth celebrating, said Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president of production and remote events.

“With the access we get with coaches and players miked and interviews during the game — hopefully some celebrities are there, and hopefully some guys who are competing in the (NFL’s) Pro Bowl (Sunday at Allegiant Stadium) are there — it’s not your standard game. And we won’t treat it as a standard game,” Gross said.

“It’s much more a celebration of the game, so take it in and enjoy it.”

Gross said those in Las Vegas who don’t switch channels to college basketball and golf should also enjoy their hometown being portrayed in a positive light. References and visual nods to the city will be as plentiful as the goal totals, and two of the Skills events will be filmed outdoors near familiar Strip locations.

It might not be the same as Gordie Howe dropping the gloves in old Chicago Stadium. But sometimes in an All-Star Game, you take what you can get.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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