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Saturday, February 7, 2004
Updated: February 8, 7:16 PM ET
Dollars would add to excitement

By Jim Kelley
ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- There was a time when folks inside the NHL's inner-office sanctum charged with thinking about these kinds of things were asked to come up with ideas on how to make the All-Star Game better.

One of the more respected staffers had a relatively simple but effective idea.

Go to the bank and get bags and bags full of crisp bills. Make sure they have those paper bands around them that you always see when the bandits boost the bank. Pile the piles neatly in the penalty box for all to see, and when the players step out onto the ice, make a simple announcement: "Guys, it's winner take all."

Three, four million bucks ought to do it.

That would make for a competitive game.

Over the top, maybe a little, but hey, we're talking pro sports here. No need for illusion.

In a world that's all about money, can you think of a single greater incentive to inject meaning into a somewhat meaningless sporting exhibition? We're not talking about playing for the Stanley Cup, the Vince Lombardi Trophy or that Six Flags-like thing that baseball hands out. Those motivations are as real as playing for a new contract or picking up a new slate of endorsements, and players embrace them with the same reverence owners reserve for cost certainty, a salary cap or personal seat licenses.

We're talking about just a little something to make things a bit more real, and in pro sports nothing is more real than money.

It's not that NHL players don't want to put on a show. They are competitive by nature, and anytime you put the best with the best, a certain amount of pride will cause people to rise to the occasion. It's just that there are so many limitations on an all-star affair, especially this kind of all-star affair, that it's, well, hard.

There's no hitting per se in an All-Star Game. Part of the reason, of course, is that players don't like to take a chunk out of someone (or themselves) in a game that doesn't count in the standings. Not for next to nothing.

Another part of the equation, of course, is that you don't have a whole lot of hitters in a gathering such as this. The few times one or two do make it into the show, they know it's not wise to wipe out another team's franchise player during a weekend schmoozefest with corporate sponsors and company big shots.

Most hockey people can live with that. Taking pain out of the hockey equation, just for a weekend, is a tolerable thing if it were replaced with something else. A little bit of defense, some close checking, a somewhat competitive team spirit, whatever makes it work.

"You come here, and it's mostly a fun environment," said Dallas Stars veteran forward Mike Modano. "Still, you want to win. It's a different kind of winning than a regular game, but the guys are hockey players, and when you play, you want to win. It's just a different environment."

Mind you, it's not a totally bad one. All-Star games have always been more about skill and displaying skill than about winning.

The NHL's traditional problem with this affair is that it displays only one aspect of the game, scoring. Defense is in short supply, and hitting is virtually nonexistent. That makes it a goal-scorers game, and the irony of that can't be lost on anyone.

Offense has fallen to near-historic lows in the NHL (5.0 goals per game on any given night this season) and nowhere is that more evident than here in Minnesota, where the offensively challenged Wild annually are among the lowest scoring teams in the league.

If form follows the function of this affair, Wild fans may need medical assistance for overexposure in regards to offense as player after player pumps shot after shot on beleaguered goaltenders, all the while unencumbered by close-checking defensemen, neutral zone traps, aggressive forechecking or left-wing locks.

While that can at times be wildly entertaining, especially in the home of the Wild, it's usually a nightmare for the goalies and a problem for the league in terms of displaying all of the skills that are in the makeup of a good hockey player and make up a good hockey game.

Complicating all of this in this game is a sense that it could be the last for several of the NHL's more notable players.

There's talk of a long-term lockout coming in hockey, a lockout that some think is necessary for long-term changes in the game. They could be right, but the fallout of that could be huge on players such as Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick (34 years old), New York's Mark Messier (43) and other veteran players who may be playing in their last All-Star contest if the league doesn't play or a labor dispute cancels the game for next season.

The same likely holds true for two injured players who are usually here, Mario Lemieux of Pittsburgh and Scott Stevens of New Jersey.

"It's not something you want to think about, but the league is in a situation where something is going to happen," Roenick said. "As an athlete, you try not to think about things outside your control, but you can't ignore that the possibility is out there."

Which makes the idea of a large-scale cash payout even more intriguing.

Imagine, a winner-take-all affair and one contested by at least some players who know that this All-Star appearance may well be their last.

I'd pay to see that game.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.