John Scott is not an elite NHL hockey player; he’s the first to tell you that. The 33-year-old, eight-season NHL veteran with just five career goals and has only appeared in 11 games so far in the 2015-16 NHL season. Yet, this year Scott will be remembered as an NHL All-Star. While elite and All-Star tend to go together by the NHL’s own design, being elite is not a prerequisite for the honor. Beyond just playing in the league, the only requirement for an All-Star is to be voted in by NHL fans.
Amazingly, Scott not only received enough votes to be a member of the 2015-2016 NHL All-Star team, he was among the top four vote-getters, earning him a captain designation. Yet, the NHL was determined to keep Scott from participating in the festivities. In their attempts to exclude, the league simultaneously created a public relations monster and were handed a public relations gift.
Fan-voting for All-Star contests is not a new concept. The NHL first used the technique for the 1986 All-Star event and modeled their process after other major sports leagues. The motivation behind fan-voting is to drive up fan engagement with a game that, outside the novelty of the event, has no real impact. Essentially, fans are allowed to pick who they want to see compete with no consequences for their actions.
For the 2016 All-Star event, the NHL changed the format to a four-division, three-on-three tournament instead of a single conference vs. conference game. A vocal group of NHL supporters opposed the change because they viewed it as a violation of the integrity of the game. In response, this group decided to encourage fans to vote for the kind of NHL player that would struggle the most in the setting.
Enter John Scott.
The fans thought it would be a sight to behold to watch the 6’8” lumbering John Scott square off in a fast paced-environment with the world’s most talented players. That could have been the end of the story. As Scott said himself, the league could have just laughed along with the joke and it would be over. However, the NHL would not sit by and let the joke actually play out.
For the league, Scott was a nightmare candidate. Not only did he not fit the style of play for the event, he also belongs to a breed of hockey player that the league is trying to phase out. Scott is an enforcer – a player whose primary role is to fight opposing players. A rugged part of hockey culture that the league is trying to move past. Featuring that role prominently at a showcase event was not on the league’s agenda.
In an act of defiance, the NHL actively worked to keep Scott out of the All-Star game. They started with techniques like hiding the official vote count (which is why no official totals are available for this post) and encouraging Scott to speak out against the campaign. Scott agreed to help because he recognized his nomination wasn’t sincere. At the request of the NHL, Scott urged fans to vote for his teammates instead . Despite Scott’s pleas, fans kept voting.
Again, the league could have quit there and just given the fans what they wanted. It is a fan-vote after all. Instead, the moves that followed blew the story from a niche NHL point-of-interest story into a national headline.
First, there was a suspect trade that many speculated as an attempt to get Scott out of the league. Scott was traded from the Arizona Coyotes to the Montreal Canadians and from there immediately demoted to the AHL, the minor league of the NHL. While the Coyotes general manager said the move was made for financial reasons, the Canadians general manger did nothing to quell rumors. The Montreal GM said he “had to make the trade,” and that he “can’t really tell you why, but if [he] could, you would probably understand.” In response to Scott’s nomination, the NHL did little to remedy the public opinion that they were meddling in their fan-vote results. Fans continued to vocalize their support for Scott’s bid.
When it became evident that moving Scott out of the league wasn’t enough, the league asked Scott to decline the bid. They might have found success in that, but in the self-penned article “A Guy Like Me,” Scott revealed the league’s nastiest move:
“So when someone from the NHL calls me and says, ‘Do you think this is something your kids would be proud of?’
… That’s when they lost me.
That was it, right there. That was the moment.”
Calling into question whether a family of four, with a fifth on the way, would be proud of their father and husband being voted into an All-Star game was a huge mistake. Scott’s article appealed to the everyman. Scott portrayed himself as a hard worker doing his best and living his dream, something people respect. Then, in a classic villain-like move, the NHL tried to embarrass him out of embracing the opportunity. When Scott made that information public in his own words, people from beyond the hockey community were moved to support him.
To save face, the NHL saw no other option but to include Scott in the event. The result was absolutely storybook. Not only did Scott’s team win the tournament, he scored twice en route to winning the fan-vote MVP Award (which he did as a write-in candidate, as the league left him off the ballot). It is hard to think of a greater example of poetic justice in the sporting world than watching NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hand Scott a $1 million check for winning the event in which he tried so hard to prevent Scott from competing.
In the aftermath of the event, statistics showed that the game was a huge success. It was the most watched All-Star game since NBCSN started broadcasting the event, clocking in at 1.6 million viewers, up 34 percent from last season’s all-time low viewing. It was also the most watched hockey game on NBCSN excluding postseason NHL matches. This was in no small part credited to the saga of John Scott, who’s All-Star jersey shirt sold out within days of adding him officially to the All-Star roster. Scott was the main headline of the event and even the NHL couldn’t deny that, featuring him in the top four highlights of their 16 highlights of the weekend recap.
The success of the event created an interesting public relations paradox for the NHL. On one hand, their behind-the-scene tactics were brought to light for all to see. The public sentiment towards the commissioner and his officers seems to be overwhelming negative as a result of the episode. Ironically, the league also hosted its best, most-watched All-Star game in a decade arguably because of the debacle. People were exposed to the game who previously had no ties to the league. While those newcomers and returning fans might have been displeased with the politics of the situation, they were drawn to the camaraderie of the players and the relatable story of John Scott. This presents an opportunity for the league to try to capitalize on this newfound excitement. With a re-charged fan base and a new folk hero, expect to see the NHL continue to promote this lovable underdog story through this season and beyond