Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Did you know ? The origins of the 3 stars selection at hockey games ?

                      MONTREAL - "Et maintenant, voici les trois etoiles, and now, here are the three stars, tel que choisis par, as chosen by ..."

It began in 1936 as a clever way to advertise Imperial Oil's Three Star gasoline, a product that would cost you 191/2 cents per gallon -4.3 cents per litre in a metric system whose use at the pumps was nearly a half-century in the future.

Through 70-plus subsequent years, it grew into something for which many fans remained in the Forum or the Bell Centre after the final siren, something they'd even debate with a "what game was he watching?" scratch of the head.

And now, in this generation of corporate partnership and interactivity with consumers, the Canadiens have placed the postgame three-star selection at the fingertips of their fans. That is, those with a smart phone and/or computer sign-on.

Since the feature's introduction to the NHL by Imperial Oil during the mid-1930s, the three stars have been named by a member of the media. For decades, a game's shining trio was chosen by a print reporter; in recent years, by one of the club's rights-paying radio or television broadcasters.

But that tradition changed last Wednesday for the Canadiens home opener vs. Tampa Bay, when the "Molson Ex Three Stars presented by Bell" were chosen by fans voting by mobile phones or on the Internet.

Cumulative numbers from the fan vote will decide the segment winners of the Molson Cup, awarded monthly to the Canadiens' "best player." The final tabulation at season's end will decide the Cup's annual winner, presented to the player of the year.

The first-, second-and third-star curtain call is as important or irrelevant as you wish it to be. But for the Canadiens, the first NHL team to turn the selection over to their fans, it is one more way to connect with their faithful.

Fans vote for the starting lineup in the NHL All-Star Game, a process that's as objective as American Idol. Witness the vote-early-and-often campaign to make Canadiens' Carey Price, Andrei Markov, Alex Kovalev and Mike Komisarek starters at the 2009 game held in Montreal.

Online, or using a mobile-phone app downloadable free from Bell, three-star voting during every home and road game begins 90 minutes after the opening faceoff and ends roughly two minutes before 60 minutes have been played.

There's the practical issue, the team says, of quickly tabulating the vote, communicating it to public-address announcer Michel Lacroix at ice level and corralling the three selected players as they leave the rink.

Should the game go to overtime or shootout, the scorer of the winning goal is automatically named first star.

Last Thursday, Price made 43 saves and was the strong favourite of voters, but he was bumped to No. 2 by Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone, who scored the winner in overtime. Voted No. 2 by fans, Canadiens centreman Tomas Plekanec dropped to No. 3.

The registration-required, one-ballot-per-voter-per-platform process doesn't allow for stuffing the box, or for a sarcastic, orchestrated No. 1 selection of, say, an out-of-favour netminder who surrenders a half-dozen goals.

(A fan could vote in the Bell Centre by mobile phone, then rush off before the last-minute cutoff to vote again by computer. In that event, the only loser that night won't be the team with fewer goals.)

"It's a sensitive decision in the sense that the organization and Bell and Molson have very much been a part of (the three stars) through the years," said Canadiens vice-president Ray Lalonde, the team's chief sales and marketing officer.

"But we're in 2010. Fans vote for all-star (starters), an incredible honour to be selected. Who says it's actually the guys who deserve it the most? Three stars is not more serious than that. It's a traditional way in Montreal and Canada to honour the best players.

"As kids, all of us used to go to the Forum and never leave the building until you heard the three stars. That was part of the ticket."

Usually, the stars take a perfunctory semi-circle twirl on the ice to salute what remains of the crowd; in a losing effort, they might not appear at all.

Last Saturday, Canadiens first star Andrei Kostitsyn was so happy that he skated nearly a lap of the rink to toss three pucks into the stands.

The feature began on radio during the 1936-37 season, an initiative of Hockey Night in Canada sponsor Imperial Oil to promote its Three Star gasoline.

A few years earlier, Esso had begun sponsoring and outfitting "3 Star" minor hockey teams across Canada, and the instantly popular NHL program would be a marketing coup.

Imperial's three stars continued beyond 1952, when Hockey Night/La Soiree du hockey debuted on TV, and has endured since the company's primary HNIC sponsorship ended in 1976, Molson having continued the tradition in Montreal.

The most famous selection surely is that of Canadiens legend Maurice Richard. On March 23, 1944, the Rocket was named all three stars for having scored Montreal's five goals in a 5-1 playoff win over Toronto.

There have been other Canadiens moments. In the late 1960s, Dick Irvin and his road-game radio colourman, Red Fisher, suggested to scratched players Claude Larose and Jimmy Roberts that choosing the stars on deadline wasn't as easy as it looked. The pair took the challenge, and Fisher recalls them still arguing about their choices a half-hour after the game.

The Canadiens know the fan vote could become more of a popularity contest than a rewarding of excellence. The team, which estimates 5,000 to 10,000 votes will be cast each game, does hold a veto in the event of an obviously fishy result, and it has a Plan B should there be a technical glitch in the system.

But Lalonde has sufficient faith in the team's tech-savvy supporters to believe the ballot will be a fair reflection of the game.

"We rely on the integrity of our fans," he said. "Fans know hockey here. They are credible, attentive and passionate, and we have faith in their good judgment ... to make good choices."

Nor does Lalonde believe a visiting player will never again be voted a star. Ottawa's Milan Michalek was No. 3 last Saturday, having scored twice, behind Kostitsyn and No. 2 Plekanec.

"The fans love us, but they also criticize us when we don't play well," Lalonde said, suggesting that a Quebecnative star wearing another uniform could earn first-star selection.

Or perhaps the embraceable, decade-long Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, who returns to Montreal as an Anaheim Duck on Jan. 22.

"I believe you must have faith in your fans and give them a chance to voice their opinion," Lalonde said.

"Sports properties like ours engage with fans every day. We find ways to make things more available, more readily accessible every day, and this is one more way to turn to the fans."

Time will tell how this ultimately works in a city where the allegiance of many is dictated by one suspect goal and/or the quantity of Molson consumed, moods changing quicker than the price of gasoline.

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