Wednesday, 24 January 2007

The Next Wave Starts On Sunday

The AHL All-Star Game and Skills Competition is being played in Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum on January 28-29. This game is a showcase for the up-and-coming talent that awaits the NHL. The AHL does their All-Star Game a little differently, pitting Team Canada versus Planet USA. Reebok is the game's major sponsor, but the players won't be wearing any snazzy new duds like their counterparts in the NHL. The competition in the AHL All-Star Game is just as high as the NHL All-Star Game, and allows the next generation of stars to shine brightly.

In 1997, the AHL switched to its current format of Team Canada versus the World Team (renamed Planet USA the following year) in Saint John, New Brunswick, home of the Saint John Flames. The Skills Competition was dominated by the World Team, winning the event 18-9. The All-Star Game was quite a battle. The teams played to a 2-2 final after 60 minutes and five minutes of overtime. In an unprecedented first, the AHL used the shootout to determine the winner, almost a decade before it was used in regular season play. The World Team won the shootout for a 3-2 victory, and were led by then 20 year-old Tomas Vokoun who, after stopping 19 shots during the game, stopped four of five Team Canada shooters in the shootout. Other current NHL stars that played in the game is like a list of "who's who": Patrik Elias, Andrew Brunette, Anson Carter, Greg de Vries, and Vaclav Prospal. Peter Laviolette, current head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, captained the World Team, and John Stevens, current coach for the Philadelphia Flyers, played defense for Team Canada.

The 2003 AHL All-Star Game in Portland, Maine was also a chance for some future stars to showcase their talents. The list of names that participated in that game is also lengthy: Ray Emery, Brad Boyes, Jason Spezza, Brian Pothier, John Pohl, Philippe Sauve, and Mike Komisarek. In that event, Team Canada won the Skills Competition over Planet USA 15-13, and won the All-Star Game 10-7.

Every year that the AHL All-Star Game has been around (since 1995), it has showcased the young, emerging superstars that will, one day, be NHL stars. Perhaps as a tribute to being the developmental league for the NHL, the AHL prides itself on its graduates. Of the 394 players to take part in the AHL All-Star Classic since 1995, more than 93 percent have competed in the National Hockey League, including Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Cheechoo, Pavol Demitra, Rick DiPietro, Miikka Kiprusoff, Kari Lehtonen, Ryan Miller, Dwayne Roloson, Martin St. Louis, Eric Staal, Steve Sullivan and Kyle Wellwood.

One of the reasons I really enjoy the AHL All-Star Game is because of the "Commissioner's Pick". Basically, the Commissioner hand-picks someone to represent the teams in the form of the captaincy. This year, Mike Keane of the Manitoba Moose, and Kip Miller of the Grand Rapids Griffins were chosen by Commissioner Dave Andrews to represent Team Canada and Planet USA, respectively. While Keane and Miller are hardly "the next generation", they get to play in the All-Star Game due to their commitment to hockey, and their leadership as veterans. This is one of the classiest moves by any league in any sport.

This year, over 100 million viewers have a chance to see the next NHL stars. The AHL has partnered in Canada with Rogers Sportsnet to have the game televised, and will have the game televised in the US over 18 regional networks: New England Sports Network (NESN); America One; Fox Sports Net (FSN) in its New York, Pittsburgh, Ohio, North, Southwest and Arizona regions; Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, Mid-Atlantic, Chicago and West; Comcast Local will air the event to its subscribers in Michigan and Indiana; CSS and Sun Sports will bring the AHL All-Star Classic to fans across 11 states in the southeastern United States; and Altitude Sports and Entertainment will carry the event for its viewers in a 10-state territory of the Rocky Mountain region. The 2007 Reebok Hockey AHL All-Star Classic will also air live on NHL Center Ice to subscribers in the U.S.

However, the AHL has gone a step further by partnering with B2 Networks to provide a live video broadband webcast of both nights’ festivities at no charge to fans around the world. Anyone with a high-speed cable modem or T1 or DSL broadband connection and Windows Media Player 9 or higher can view the Skills Competition and All-Star Game through the links to be provided on the official Web site of the American Hockey League,

This is how an event is supposed to be run. Gary Bettman should be learning from the AHL on how to run a successful event. They have several large networks carrying the game in all major markets, they have a free broadband feed of the game, and the event itself is about the stars, not the corporate fat cats. Take note, Bettman: if you want to do it right, take a page from the AHL. Everything that is good about your league now got its start in the AHL.

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