Brendan Shanahan on the NHL All-Star Game’s Fantasy Draft

Brendan Shanahan scored 656 goals in his 21-year NHL career, 52 of them in his two seasons with the Rangers. More recently, though, in his role as the NHL’s vice-president of hockey and business development, he helped develop the fantasy-draft format that will be used for this year’s All-Star Game in Raleigh: Two days before the January 30 game, two captains — Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom, aided by two assistant captains each — will alternate picks and select their teams from the pool of 2011 All-Stars. Shanahan spoke with The Sports Section about how the idea came about, seeking the input of children, and why they’re not softening the blow of being picked last.

So how did this format come about? Did you go in looking to change the format?
I think we talked about not necessarily changing the format, but just improving it, and doing what we can do to make it more entertaining for the fans, and more fun to play in for the players. And so I think when you talk about the fans, it’s the ability to identify with a fantasy draft, and also to identify with something that you don’t have to be a professional athlete or even athletic to have experienced at some point in life — you know, picking teams in gym class.

Who originally presented the idea?
Rob Blake and I actually were working on it together, trying to personalize it — to put ourselves in that situation, remember some of the things from when we played, and then reached out to a lot of people to get input. But it was Rob Blake and I who sort of piece by piece broke down the format. For example, having one captain stand up there alone — we said, you know, he’ll feel better if he can get in a huddle. We thought about the things we would have felt ourselves — that we did want to do and that we didn’t want to do. I presented it to Gary Bettman, and he said go for it.

How much does the game itself actually matter? Is there an integrity to the All-Star Game that you have to preserve?
I think that you have to maintain the integrity for the players and the game at all times without taking yourself too seriously, and remembering that for these guys, the rest of the NHL is off, and these guys are here to put on a show. And there are plenty of games for fans to watch two teams battle for two points. This is a little bit more of a unique situation, where I think they’re looking for entertainment value. I think they want to see players have fun. I think if the players are having fun, the fans will be entertained. There’s a respect for the integrity of the game, but I don’t think you can take yourselves too seriously when you’re talking about this situation. I think they keyword was “fun,” and maybe the other keyword would be “entertainment.”

Was there any concern about having someone picked last?
Yeah, yeah. It was actually in our presentation to the players association, when we presented it to the players, we had basically built in a way where potentially the last six picks would be grouped into two groups of three, so there wouldn’t be a last man standing. We reached out to the players, not just on that one specific area, but on the overall concept, to see if they liked it, and the reaction was pretty overwhelming that they liked it. But also surprisingly, they didn’t want us to soften the blow of the last pick, that they really treated it as a fun part of this exercise, and in the end, you’ll be talking about a guy that went last overall but is still in the All-Star Game and is still one of the elite players of the NHL. And I think that it reflects a little bit — I don’t know if you’ve seen 24/7 on HBO — the players’ enjoyment with teasing and being teased. And I think that’s a part that the fans are looking forward to. It’s not meant to embarrass anybody, but it’s done sort of to give them more of a stake in the game, and to have a little fun with it. But it’s the players that pushed for that.

Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to in the draft?
Yeah, sure. Do the Sedin twins get split up? Does Staal pick Cam Ward as his first goalie? Does Lidstrom steal Cam Ward? Does Lidstrom steal Staal’s brother? And then beneath it all, there are players that played juniors with one another, or grew up with one another — things like that, that you’re not even aware of until the draft actually happens.

Was there a need to infuse some life into the All-Star Game, now that the Winter Classic has become arguably the league’s premier mid-season event?
It truly wasn’t a motivation. I think we consider the Winter Classic an asset to the NHL, and we consider the All-Star Game an asset to the NHL. The All-Star Game has been going on for decades, and I don’t think the two compete. With each event that we do, I want each specific event to be as good as it can be. I don’t care which one is universally more popular than the other, so long as each one we do is the best one we can do.

Anything else you want to say about the new format?
I think the players are excited about doing it. I think the fans are excited about having it. To me, those are the two biggest indications of something to be optimistic about. The other thing is, I was talking about seeking input. And my son plays hockey, he’s eight years old, and I asked his teammates what they liked about the All-Star Game. And I got great reactions and great answers. I think we become cynical with our old age about how the game is played and when and where and all that stuff, but I loved it as a kid, and it was refreshing to hear how much kids right now love it.

What specifically did they like about it?
They loved Ovechkin in Montreal, when he put the hat on with the Canadian flag, and that’s the part I think sometimes as hockey purists, we turn our nose up at certain things, and we have to remember that kids love seeing the personalities of the players come through, and realizing and recognizing that it’s still a game, and these guys love to play.

Brendan Shanahan on the NHL All-Star Game’s Fantasy Draft