One of the principal topics of conversation each year at the National Hockey League All-Star Game is the format. Few are excited at watching representatives of the Campbell Conference and Prince of Wales Conference skate around with the overriding goal of avoiding injury.

When a contact sport becomes noncontact, it loses much of its appeal. Yet the monetary differential of $250 a man -- each winner gets $1,000, each loser $750 -- hardly provides the incentive to hit anyone.

A reasonable idea for boosting interest would give the All-Star winner home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup final. That currently is determined by the winner of the most interconference games during the regular season, a practice that seems destined to perpetuate last year's setup of two games in the East, three in Edmonton and two more in the East.

"There are always a lot of ideas about changing the All-Star Game, but the two that have a realistic chance for adoption are giving home ice in the final to the All-Star winner and turning over selections to the fans," said Washington General Manager David Poile.

"Only one or two players here are on teams that have no chance to make the playoffs. Everyone else would have an interest in winning if home ice in the final was at stake."

A fan vote like baseball and basketball has been proposed, but NHL officials know they would not get the broad participation of the other sports and they fear ballot-box stuffing in interested cities would distort the results.

Teams currently are selected by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, with three in each city voting only for players within their conference.

The first 19 All-Star games were played at the start of the season, with the Stanley Cup champion hosting a team composed of players from the other five clubs. That suffered from lack of interest in the United States, then occupied with baseball and football.

It also limited the sites and in one 13-game stretch, only once was it played outside Montreal and Toronto.

With expansion came a change to an East-West format and rotating midseason sites, eventually turning into Campbell-Wales in 1975. The exciting moments in the ensuing years have been few, limited to Gilbert Perreault's overtime goal in Buffalo in 1978 and Wayne Gretzky's four-goal third period on Long Island in 1983.

A one-year experiment in 1979 produced the Challenge Cup, with the league taking a week off to send an All-Star team against the Soviets. The humiliation of that defeat still lingers in some NHL quarters.

Perhaps, as U.S. players continue to make inroads, the All-Star Game in a few years can become a U.S.-Canada confrontation, alternating between U.S. and Canadian sites.

Certainly, Canada-U.S. would have a greater identity than Campbell-Wales. There is a nucleus of U.S. players here, including Rod Langway and Bob Carpenter of Washington, Mike Ramsey and Tom Barrasso of Buffalo and Chris Chelios of Montreal. All are Wales players, as is Mark Howe of Philadelphia, forced to withdraw because of a rib injury.

The ceremonial puck will be dropped Tuesday night by Marc Garneau, the Canadian astronaut who carried it into space on a U.S. shuttle mission.

Garneau attended a press conference today and said he applied for the astronaut program because "I thought it was the most fantastic job anyone could have." Yes, even better than playing center for the Edmonton Oilers.