Behind the NHL's Kid Rock debacle

Detroit Red Wings fan Kid Rock has been announced as a musical performer at the 2018 NHL All-Star Game. Monica Morgan/Getty Images

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I want to write about Kid Rock about as much as I want to listen to Kid Rock. I think he lost me about 10 years ago when, in a true moment of musical indolence, he took "Werewolves of London" and added lyrics about drinking by a lake and called it a new song. It was like if I put my byline on a Wright Thompson column because I changed every third word to "hockey."

A week out from the National Hockey League's All-Star Game in Tampa, I'm writing about Kid Rock because he's performing at said All-Star Game, in a decision that managed to create a perfect storm of criticism from the politically offended, the musically offended and those of us who cringe whenever a famous-for-the-NHL celebrity drops by an event.

As we reported on Thursday night, the NHL is aware of this outrage. The question is, what will it do about it?

Before we answer that, here's another question: How, in 2018, did we end up with Kid Rock at the NHL All-Star Game?

With a few exceptions -- The Killers, Drake -- most musical acts tapped for NHL events fall into two categories: relatively new acts that few people of have heard of, and nostalgia acts that you haven't thought of in years. That second category has produced some legitimate, surprisingly entertaining sets at all-star games and outdoor games, like KISS and Billy Idol. It's also produced The Guy From Train.

What the NHL tries to do is find acts that, in some way, have an affinity for hockey. I go back and forth on this. On the one hand, it limits the talent search because ... well, not sure if you noticed, but hockey fandom can sometimes have a narrow demographic scope, Snoop Dogg excepted. On the other hand, it's always nice to have celebrities who are hockey fans around, because we're the first ones to smell a lack of authenticity and bemoan it.

Kid Rock is a familiar name and a Detroit Red Wings fan, to the point where he had beach parties with Chris Chelios and the Stanley Cup. He also fits in the NHL's entertainment budget. He was also available on NHL All-Star Weekend this year, which was fairly important: The NHL's event in Tampa is being held the same weekend as the Grammy Awards in New York, so the available artists were severely limited compared to past years. Which is how you get Kid Rock.

Kid Rock is a guy who doesn't believe that transgender people exist, which, as Outsports notes, is a bit of a problem for a professional hockey league that sells a "Hockey is for Everyone!" message at every turn, and is insulting to many fans who already feel marginalized.

Kid Rock is a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, which isn't popular with a lot of hockey fans. Then again, if hockey fans refused to watch a Trump supporter entertain them at an NHL event, they'd never attend a game.

Kid Rock is also a guy who sells a lot of shirts in his official store. One of them has the red states and blue states from the recent presidential election, with the red ones labeled "the United States of America" and the blue ones labeled "Dumb[expletive]istan."

New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada and California are rather populous with NHL fans and important to the league's overall success. In the eyes of the entertainer the league hired for the All-Star Game, they're also not part of America.

So you can see why some hockey fans have accepted this booking like a spear to the stomach.

What the NHL has said on the record about this via Steve Mayer, NHL executive vice president and executive producer for programming and creative development, is that it views Kid Rock as a hockey fan who can entertain its fans at this event. And this is in keeping with what the NHL does, which is attempt to remain above the fray on political and social discourse unless it knows it can keep it "ribbon-politics" vague and score some easy points. (Hockey is for Everyone, Pride Days, etc.) It wants to exist in an apolitical vacuum -- unless, of course, Gary Bettman is trying to influence the mayoral election in Calgary to get the Flames a new arena.

What the NHL has discovered this week is what all brands are starting to discover: that the ground has shifted under their feet. They're no longer immune to the noxiousness of our climate, and customers want to know where they stand. A recent survey found that 66 percent of consumers "want brands to take public stands on social and political issues." That could be something as simple as supporting a cause or something more thorny, such as not booking a musical act for your All-Star Game who dismisses most of the northeastern United States as un-American.

(I've heard that Kid Rock's performance at the All-Star Game is, rather incredibly, themed about creating togetherness and unity. Maybe it'll just be 15 minutes of him apologizing for his shirts.)

What I've learned this week is that the NHL knew that Kid Rock had baggage but didn't anticipate this backlash. While the league is defending the choice, there's no doubt it's learning from it. The last thing the league wants is for some superficial ancillary entertainment to interrupt the build to one of its signature events, which is what this Kid Rock thing has done. And the last thing most NHL fans want is yet another thing they have to explain away to their non-hockey friends, which is what this Kid Rock thing has done.

The tricky thing about walking through a minefield is that you can't see the mines. But for the NHL, this was more like stepping into a cow patty. It stinks, and hopefully it watches its steps more carefully next time.

Gregg Popovich is a national treasure

As we noted last week in the Weekly Reader, NHL fighting is reaching new historic lows this season. But as you might have seen on ... well, any edition of SportsCenter, fighting in the NBA is on the rise.

OK, that should probably be "fighting" in the NBA. A typical NBA "fight" in 2018 involves two players pantomiming the beginning of a brawl before having to be physically restrained by teammates, lest they allow this meek, punch-less farce to continue unabated.

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recently commented on the upward trend of "namby pampy" NBA aggression:

Seriously, NBA "fights" make the clash of Aaron Downey vs. Brad Norton look like Tie Domi vs. Bob Probert by comparison.

The ECHL's bat-poop crazy All-Star idea

There are times when the entire existence of minor league hockey seems to be so that leagues can throw a bunch of creepy pasta at the wall to see what sticks. They're incubators for outlandish ideas, some of which actually make their way to the NHL -- 3-on-3 overtime, for example, originated in the Southern Professional Hockey League.

So it was with great interest that we saw the ECHL announce its format for the 2019 All-Star Game in Toledo, Ohio. It will retain the basic four-team 3-on-3 tournament that is used for this season's All-Star Game in Indianapolis. But instead of having teams representing each division, like the NHL does, the ECHL is going in a radical new direction for next season's event: one team of Eastern Conference All-Stars, one team of Western Conference All-Stars, and then two teams made up of players from the home team Toledo Walleye. Each team will have five forwards, four defensemen and a goaltender.

"As a league, we try to keep an open mind and be innovative, and entertain our fans. We've had the 3-on-3 format for a couple of years, and the people in Toledo wanted to mesh with a way to keep their fans more engaged and really have something to cheer for," ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna told ESPN.

The format is an interesting acknowledgement that hockey all-star games, including the NHL's, are increasingly becoming locally popular but nationally challenged from an interest perspective. So why not cater to the home fans? The game always has been a glorified intersquad scrimmage anyway. The only drawback is that not every team will be represented.

The tournament itself is innovative. The first round will be round-robin style, with each team competing against one another in six consecutive eight-minute running clock games. All four teams will advance to the second round and will be re-seeded based on total score. Then the top two highest-scoring teams after the first two rounds will meet in a 10-minute, running clock final game.

"The players will have to keep the pedal to the metal the entire time," McKenna said.

It's a wacky concept. Imagine if the NHL applied it to this year's All-Star Game: Could the Tampa Bay Lightning ice two complete teams? Maybe if you let a few forwards play defense, too. So what does that say about Toledo's 'B' team?

"I guess we'll find out," McKenna said with a laugh. "I think there's going to be a lot of pride at stake to see if they can keep up with the All-Stars. But these guys are going to be able to play as a team, practice as a team well before the game. They'll have much more time to plot strategy and game plan than the other players who might show up the day of the game."

Systems vs. skill, as an epic underdog team of depth players takes on a team of conference all-stars?

We dig it.

Jersey Foul of the week

Here's a Los Angeles Kings Jersey Foul:

Even if this is a commemoration of the Kings' 2014 Stanley Cup Final win over the New York Rangers, there's a thousand percent chance people are going to think this is a Rangers fan who is a casual fan of sports in Los Angeles.

Or, as they're sometimes known, a Los Angeles fan.

Sean Couturier, new kid on the power play

In the past three seasons, no trio has played more together on the power play than Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, with 623 minutes in the course of 190 games.

From 2014-15 to 2016-17, they combined with forward Brayden Schenn and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere to create perhaps the NHL's most potent five-man unit: Giroux (58 power-play points), Schenn (50), Simmonds (46), Voracek (46) and Gostisbehere (45) were all in the top 25 NHL players in power-play scoring during those two seasons. Simmonds (29 goals) and Schenn (28) were in the top four for power-play goals.

Unlike other power plays that are frequently reshuffled by coaches, a few games without a goal was never a threat to their existence. "We know if we're going to be in a slump, we're going to break out and we're going to go on a run. It's been that way for seven years," Voracek told ESPN this week.

Since Voracek arrived in 2011-12, the Flyers have the third-most effective power play in the NHL (20.4 percent), behind teams that count Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby among their numbers. They've seen some players come and go -- Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen among them. Most recently, it was Schenn who departed, after the Flyers traded him to the St. Louis Blues last offseason.

The Flyers have the league's eighth-best power play this season, at 21.4 percent. As the season has gone on, Sean Couturier has gotten more comfortable as Schenn's replacement, with four of his nine power-play points coming since Dec. 29.

"He's a smart player. He watched someone for such a long time, like he did with Schenn. He knows what to do. We talked about it a lot. We talk about the power play, if we have a bad game, what to do to make sure we don't do it again," Voracek said.

Couturier's time on the Flyers' top line has helped with that chemistry. "He knows that when he played with me and 'G' that he's going to get the puck when he goes to the net," Voracek said. "He knows when to go to the net. He knows when to stop. I wish I had that gift."

But again, the key to the Flyers' power play is the confidence their coaches have placed in it for years. When so many other teams are comfortable sticking their power-play units in a blender if the numbers slip, Voracek said the Flyers' personnel stability on the man advantage is an undeniable benefit.

"Sometimes, you're just moving the puck well for two minutes and you get a couple of posts. Sometimes the goalie makes a save or two. For the people who just watch the stat sheet, it's easy to say, 'You're zero-for-four, what's wrong?' Well, nothing. I thought we were pretty good. We just didn't score," he said.

"If you split the units up once every two or three games, it's hard to get something going. The coaching staff, and the past coaching staff, are smart to keep us together."

Puck headlines

North Korea and South Korea are combining to create a women's Olympic hockey team, and one imagines the IOC will never let us hear the end of this moment of sports transcending political tensions. [NYT]

Goalie Louis Domingue is Mad Online. [Twitter]

Fun one from Puck Junk, which looks back at 10 offbeat Eric Lindros hockey cards. [Puck Junk]

Not sure if I'm ready for a world without Rene Rancourt. [Bruins]

Tyler Dellow with an interesting look at the developmental paths of defensemen to become top-four players. [The Athletic]

Figuring out Henrik Lundqvist's place in history. [THN]

While we're all excited about an NHL team in Seattle, how will that affect the junior teams there? [Seattle Times]

Jack Johnson owned his trade request from the Columbus Blue Jackets:

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)

A full breakdown and explanation of the Washington Capitals Stadium Series uniforms. [Sports Logos]

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

The players and circumstances that paved the way for Willie O'Ree to break the NHL's color barrier 60 years ago. [The Undefeated]