With “100” emblazoned across every conceivable item of memorabilia lest the ice at the Bell Center there is undeniable pomp and pride being wagered at the Canadiens centennial and why not. With North American sports so often criticized for their lack of heritage a storied and historic franchise like the Montreal Canadiens with their wealth of traditions can do nothing if not enrich the NHL itself.
Indeed the NHL has taken unprecedented steps to accommodate its most iconic property in this landmark year allowing the dual hosting of the 2009 NHL All Star game as well as the 2009 NHL entry draft.
Naturally the season was shaping up to be a spectacle with the Habitants taking center stage and even the most partisan rival would find it hard to grumble. Unfortunately the same regard cannot be shared with the current bias in the preliminary all star voting.
Baseball fans first received the all star vote in 1947. Utilizing a simple at-the-gates ballot slip procedure, the all star election remained a populist mechanism of the MLB to draw fan participation and subsequent interest into the game. Whilst the tactic worked for a decade, the system quickly collapsed in 1957 with the ballot box stuffing scandal in which 7 Cincinnati Reds were elected by virtue of pre rendered cards in the Cincinnati Enquirer alongside reports of bartenders refusing drinks to none Reds voters. Forced to lose face and replace players, it took the MLB a further 12 years until it would entrust the integrity of its showcase game to the fans again.
Despite the rigors experienced by the MLB, the fan vote was brought into the NHL equation in 1986 amidst a down turn in media interest in the all star event. Instituted in much the same way as the MLB had done in 1947, the vote remained an innocent enough marketing tool for a game perceived as ever more meaningless in the era of multi million dollar contracts.
Regardless the fan vote continued to thrive throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, even if the event didn’t and evolution came in the form of digital online voting once more changing the complexion of fan interaction towards the end of the 90’s. Now any supporter with a computer and an internet connection could cast their choices with minimal fuss, opening up the All Star game to an even greater audience. The move was not without its risks however, where it was possible to issue constraints on a pen and paper system within reasonable margins of debate, the open online system became a prime target for automated voting, rigging and bot activity skewing numbers intolerably. Indeed whilst the MLB was struggling with its own online teething problems in the form of the Nomar Garciaparra incident in 1999, the NHL was doing little to curtail anomalous online voting, further complicating mattes with the inauguration of the multiple voting procedure in 2006.
What resulted was the embarrassing Rory Fitzpatrick fiasco a year later when a ground swell of fans tried to get the unfashionable defensive defenseman into the All Star line up using various online avenues such as social networking sites, YouTube and pop up advertising alongside more traditional t-shirts and banner campaigning. Whilst the “Vote for Rory” movement was an innocent enough mockery of the NHL’s multiple voting system, the leagues ham fisted dumping of Fitzpatrick votes in light of automated balloting created an statistical imbalance between the Conferences ballots as well as fierce disgruntlement. In the meantime Slate web magazine noted that the automated Rory voting was no more a peculiarity than the unusual voting patterns enjoyed by underachieving San Jose Sharks nominees since 1999 causing a considerable loss of integrity for the All Star event and the league, particularly as the purported 100,000 votes for Fitzpatrick removed from the final tallies robbed the now infamous Canucks blueliner of first place in the Western Conference defensemen poll by proxy a place in the the game. The aftermath left considerable ill feeling between a large number of supporters and NHL figureheads who had spoken against the genuine “Vote for Rory” campaign whom after the controversy, transcended the initial sending up of the NHL system into a more meaningful argument for the inclusion of a hardworking veteran player.
It was later noted that the NHL had shown little regard for security with a CAPTCHA system with limited randomizations allowing a staunch Rory Fitzpatrick supporter to draw up a program in short time to circumvent the failsafe. Whilst one would assume the league had learnt from its own disastrous shortcomings two years ago, early voting for the 2009 All Star game in Montreal has shown a worrying bias towards the six Canadiens players on the ballot. Currently Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay lead out the polls for Eastern Conference forwards by more than 100,000 votes over Washington Capitals ever popular Alex Ovechkin and current scoring leader Alex Semin. To put it into perspective, Kovalev currently has 14 points on the season tying him for 47th in league scoring whilst Semin has 27 points for 1st. Meanwhile Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek lead out Boston’s giant all star d-man Zdeno Chara by 130,000 and Carey Price has an enormous lead for the starting goaltender position by 137,000 votes over Rangers net minder Henrik Lundqvist. Were voting to end today the complete Eastern Conference starting line up would be Montreal Canadiens, an unparalleled occurrence.
Where the victors of the MLB’s All Star game take home advantage in the World Series adding some spice to the event, many hockey fans are left questioning the consequences of the NHL All Star game in light of the post-lockout league. The game has been viewed as a dull no hitting goal fest that in no way depicts or showcases the true drama of the NHL for many years and the latest voting problems are going to add fuel to the fire of an increasing corner of the hockey world who would be happy to see the event canned altogether.
This leaves the NHL with precarious decision making in the coming days. Whilst voting has been opened early presumably with one eye on potential rigging, the sheer number of Canadiens elect, as well as the almost insurmountable figures, mean the NHL face the real possibility of having to shut the vote down or reset, a move the pragmatic Fitzpatrick felt the league should have done for the 2007 edition. Indeed one Canadiens web forum implored fans to use a program called Greasemonkey to auto vote the Canadiens on the ballot, again circumventing the NHL’s flawed use of CAPTCHA and illustrating an early lack of veracity in the figures.
There are now obvious feelings of disinterest surrounding this season’s All-Star game, not least from fans of the other 14 teams that make up the Eastern Conference. Whilst the NHL has begun monitoring the vote it awaits to be seen if the league will intervene and rain on the parade of the franchise it has done so much to promote in its centennial year. The other option seems to be allow the vote to run as it has done, broken and partisan, providing a massive draw for the home fans of Montreal. However if the league do choose to take a back seat it will not only face the ire of Fitzpatrick supporters whom became a sizeable crowd of disenchanted fans following 2007, but also supporters of every other team that will see this as another failure in the increasing annual debacle that is the All Star event. Furthermore if this seasons election are to be seen as yet another embarrassment it could provide a death blow for the All-Star game heading into the 2010 Winter Olympics break with a slew of scorned fans unlikely to buy into the event no matter its location in 2011. What began as a marketing scheme for an event that receives a mixed response at best has now put the NHL in a perilous PR position and many are left wondering why the league has allowed it to happen again?