NHL shakes up All-Star game with unique draft

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - While the NFL and NBA are facing labor uncertainty, the NHL is taking a moment to puff out its chest as it heads into an All-Star weekend unlike any other.

Six years after a full season was lost, the NHL finds itself in a unique position of negotiated calm and unprecedented success. Hockey will never enjoy the revenue streams the NFL produces, but the little brother league can relate to the uncertainty that threatens upcoming football and basketball games.

The NHL certainly likes its current view, far away from the storm.

As it takes the midseason spectacle to Raleigh for the first time, the NHL said it is on pace to break revenue records. The league expects total revenue to rise for the fifth straight year to nearly $2.9 billion. League generated revenue is believed to be going up by 14 percent _ an 85 percent jump over the past four years.

“The league is extremely well positioned,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “The vital signs are good and we anticipate continued growth and momentum. The strong numbers are a testament to a great product on the ice, a growing fan base that loves our game, and a strategy that provided a path for corporate America to reach that fan base.”

And now the NHL is pushing the envelope.

While the league and the game will take a big hit because Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby _ the face of the league and its most popular player _ is out with a concussion, at least there is another hook to draw people in.

Outside of taking the All-Star game outside _ a la the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day _ it is hard to envision a more radical change to the format that seemingly worked for years. This year’s teams will be chosen by a televised draft on Friday.

“You look around the leagues, the concept is pretty much the same: voted in or picked by fans or hockey personnel,” Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. “I’d say this caught people probably 90 percent off-guard.”

Brendan Shanahan is proving to be every bit as creative an executive as he was in building a Hall of Fame-caliber playing career. The eight-time All-Star, who is now the NHL’s vice president of hockey and business development, worked with the league and the players’ association to develop a plan that fans could relate to even more than the All-Stars themselves.

Instead of dividing the players by conference or nationality, both tried and true methods, the All-Star teams won’t be set until the captains make their picks.

This is where fantasy meets reality. The draft is such an interesting concept, the NHL is running the risk that it will overshadow the game.

“There isn’t any doubt, that is the focal point of the weekend,” said analyst Eddie Olczyk, who will call the game with Mike Emrick on Versus. “I don’t think there is any doubt it needed something. The league did a good job coming up with something a little different.

“It had gone stale for a while.”

Eric Staal of the host Carolina Hurricanes will serve as captain of the aptly named “Team Staal,” and along with his alternate captains _ Washington defenseman Mike Green and Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler _ will stage a draft against Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and his assistants Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago’s Patrick Kane on “Team Lidstrom.”

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