Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Go ahead and pinch yourselves, NHL executives. It wasn’t a dream, although it sure as heck seemed like one.
All-Star Weekend really did turn from a dreary midseason ritual into a trending topic far beyond the usual narrow boundaries of the sport — and became the NHL’s best regular-season marketing moment since the Winter Classic debuted in 2008.
And it would have been all of that even without the facts that a radical change in format was a success beyond anyone’s imagination, that players turned the Skills Challenge into a show complete with both Chewbacca and Jaromir Jagr wigs, that Nashville — one of America’s best, most compact party towns — was an ideal host, and that the game-day temperature outside Bridgestone Arena hit 70 degrees, creating a festival atmosphere.
(One negative: The public skating rink beside the arena had understandable puddling issues.)
But it all was mere prelude to the grand finale.
I knew something big was brewing when as I waited to speak to the Islanders’ John Tavares after the first semifinal Sunday, I saw that Mrs. Best — a sports fan, but a casual one — had been tweeting about John Scott’s first goal.
With multiple exclamation marks. And an All-Star Game hashtag.
There is nothing new to add here about the Pacific Division captain who plays in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the most Atlantic possible sports town, and who now is tied in career All-Star goals with Steve Yzerman, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Marcel Dionne, Paul Coffey and Stan Mikita.
More to come in the book and movie. Which, by the way, John, if you need a good ghostwriter . . . .
Anyway, back to the larger point I was intending to make here: Sure, the weekend was a perfect storm for the NHL, some of it blind luck (Scott and the weather), some of it clever design (the three-on-three format and Nashville).
So not all of this is repeatable next year in L.A. But what the experience did demonstrate to all pro leagues and their fans is that All-Star Games can and do work if executed properly, and with modest expectations.
One problem is that we demand too much of them, because we treat them too much like normal sports-like events.
Most of the games we watch are played inside TV sets, a two-dimensional experience in which the result is all that matters and the periphery is, well, peripheral.
What I have learned from my first three All-Star Games — MLB in 2013, NBA in ’15, NHL in ’16 — is that they are three-dimensional experiences best appreciated in the flesh, or at least through social media, the 21st century equivalent of “in the flesh.”
That is where their true reason for being becomes evident, in the form of events that get the host community involved and, even more so, marketing and sponsorship extravaganzas that grease the wheels of sports commerce.
Never was that more evident than in New York last February, when the NBA and its players wrapped a basketball weekend around an elaborate series of fashion shows — I’m talking to you, Russell Westbrook — and other marketing gimmicks to produce a uniquely modern sports concoction.
Nashville, too, turned into a brew of cultures, with thousands of fans milling about in an array of replica NHL sweaters — Tavares was well represented among the non-Predators choices — while country music blared from a stage outside the arena, and everywhere else.
And yet at the league’s big Saturday night party to entertain hundreds of its close friends, the featured musical act was KC and the Sunshine Band. (Ask your parents.)
Why? Why not?
KC himself — Harry Wayne Casey — turned 65 while on stage at midnight.
None of this helps fans who just want to watch something interesting on television on a midwinter weekend, but again, that is not really the point, or leagues would have given up on these things long ago.
It’s just business, nothing personal. But sometimes, when the stars align just so, it can be both, and that is cause for a real celebration.
Thank you, John Scott!!!! #NHLAllStars.