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This is hockey?

It's time the NHL throw out the YoungStars debacle

Posted: Tuesday January 23, 2007 11:08PM; Updated: Tuesday January 23, 2007 11:08PM
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Kari Lehtonen had a long night in net -- no thanks to his defense.
Kari Lehtonen had a long night in net -- no thanks to his defense.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
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DALLAS -- After sitting through the NHL's third-ever YoungStars game Tuesday night, I can only say I hope it is the last. I'm betting the sparse and snoozing crowd at the American Airlines Center would agree. The two-day All-Star party is a fine event, festive and entertaining. But this game, dull and miscast, is no way to get it going.

The YoungStars game, the first on-ice event of the two days, is played by guys on entry-level contracts who are under 25 and who didn't get picked for the grown-up game. (Hence, no Sidney Crosby, no Alex Ovechkin) The YoungStars play 4-on-4, for three, 10-minute periods. In others words, a pretend game. Everybody skates around formlessly -- and unenergetically. "The game was more slow-moving than I expected," said Ryan Getzlaf, a YoungStar from the Ducks. Guys fire shots and pass the puck sloppily while defensemen occasionally wave their sticks in benign protest.

The score this time wound up at 9-8. That's 17 goals in 30 minutes. All of them scarcely contested, none of them memorable. No one was expecting a hard-checking affair but a little intensity would have been nice, might have stopped the audible snoring rising up from section 117

Do you feel like you just played a hockey game? I asked the gently perspiring Penguins forward Ryan Whitney a few minutes after the East's win? "No," he said. "More like a summer practice or a shinny or something."

The Super Skills competition, which follows the game, is neat, a special one-off event and a treat (See Crosby skate in on a penalty shot! See Selanne slalom with the puck!) YoungStars is nothing; not a skills showcase, not a game. Did the East care about holding onto its lead near the end? "Not really," said Patrick Eaves, a forward from the Senators. "We were kind of joking around out there

What the NHL needs to do is scrap YoungStars and instead open up its All-Star display with the CHL top prospects game. In that annual game, the 40 best prospects in Canadian Juniors get it on. "I think there was a fight in ours," said Getzlaf who played in the 2003 game. "Guys lay it on the line. You have to skate hard, pass well, play defense, hit. Whatever it is that you do, you have to go all out."

That's because NHL scouts descend on the game. And they still could -- a lot of them are at All-Star weekend anyway. It would be a chance for fans to see a first-class, full-of-passion game and to get a first look at guys who'll one day star in the league, rather than a second look at guys who are already not-quite all-stars in the NHL. It would be cool for the prospects, too, a taste of the big-time.

The Top Prospects game gets played in Canada every January -- it was in Quebec City last week, a 4-3 final. The fans, of course, devour it. If you don't want to take a game away from Canada, play two top prospects games. Or else send these Young Gunners up North to give folks in places like Saskatchewan a glimpse of the NHL players, something they'd certainly appreciate.

However the league does it, it needs to have the Top Prospects in the fold immediately -- meaning next year at the All-Star Game in Atlanta. Have them play a real hockey game: five-on-five, three 20-minute periods. The players will all have something -- a crack at the NHL for puck's sake! -- on the line. And fans would have something to see. Now that would get the NHL's midwinter party started.