The NHL All-Star Game was once a stage for Alexander Ovechkin's fun-loving persona and electric skills. (Lou Capozzola/SI; Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; AP)
By Stu Hackel
Fans of the Detroit Red Wings may be a bit puzzled today by NHL justice. Three years ago, Wings stars Nick Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk were suspended by the NHL for one game when they declined to take part in the All-Star festivities in Montreal. But yesterday, Capitals star Alex Ovechkin declined to take part in the upcoming All-Star festivities in Ottawa and he's not going to be punished.
Well, actually, Ovie's already suspended (more on that below), but not for the All-Star Game. He still could have gone to Ottawa and participated, but he elected not to. Yet, he'll face no discipline. And the reason seems to be, well, that things have changed with regard to the All-Star Game.
A combination of factors contributed to the different manner in which the NHL viewed Ovie's staying home compared to when Nick and Pav did. For one thing, there's been a change in the Hockey Operations Department, with an infusing of younger men who played more recently and have a better sense of what today's NHLers think and how to communicate with them. Brendan Shanahan -- the guy who came up with the new "player draft" format, which proved to be pretty popular in its first season, rejuvenating some excitement around the game -- and his group seem to be a bit more understanding than the older heads, Colin Campbell and Mike Murphy, who oversaw this game in the past. Which is to say they probably shouldn't have dinged the Wings in '09.
Three years ago, the league was having trouble getting players, especially veterans, interested in participating. Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski recalls, "the All-Star Game was being plagued by star players who didn't want to take part. The previous season in Atlanta, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Henrik Zetterberg and Sergei Zubov did not play despite being selected; three other players missed the game due to injury."
That was not a good situation for the fans who paid hefty prices to see the NHL's best together in one place, nor the many corporate sponsors who help contribute substantially to league revenue and for whom All-Star Weekend is a great opportunity to cozy up to the stars. So the league made a new rule mandating players be there and chose to make an example of the two Wings. The NHL also kindly requested the presence of Sidney Crosby, who was injured, and he was persuaded to attend.
But that was then and this is now, and there seems to be a new spirit around the All-Star Game -- not the game itself which, even with the choose-up-sides format, remains nothing more than an orgy of offense. However, all the events surrounding the game have been amped up. The atmosphere in the host city has increasingly improved. Last year's Raleigh event, for example, was roundly hailed by all who attended, and everyone in Montreal was awed by the celebration of the game and the home team's centennial gala.
Additionally, extra days have been built into the schedule -- almost every team is already done for the break except for the lone Detroit-Montreal contest on Wednesday night -- so the players will feel less rushed and can enjoy the event more with their families and teammates. And the influx of young stars who are invited, many for the first time, ensures that there is more enthusiasm among the teams.
So the NHL now demands less of its stars. In fact, both Lidstrom and Teemu Selanne, who belong in the Ottawa game, won't be going and the league is fine with that this time. These forty-something marvels want to rest their weary bones or spend time quietly with their families or whatever it is they plan on doing.
But that doesn't mean they've escaped criticism for ducking out, especially in Ottawa where Ken Warren wondered in The Citizen, "Why has the NHL allowed them to become bigger than the game? Or, more precisely, bigger than the All-Star Game?...Call me jaded, but the league might just have given Lidstrom and Selanne a thing or two along the way, too. They have become ambassadors for the game because of what they have done and for what the league has done for them, as well."
Well, no one should be bigger than the game (a principle we raised yesterday with regard to Tim Thomas), and the event would be more meaningful with Lidstrom and Selanne there. Wyshynski argued, with some justification, that he was willing to cut them a break, writing, "They have 21 All-Star Game appearances between them. This isn't Steven Stamkos telling the NHL to buzz off; these are two guys that have helped market the game for the last 20 years."
Since no one seems inclined to force anyone to do anything they don't want to do, we'll all have to live with their absence and they'll have to live with the public relations consequences. Lidstrom's and Selanne's image probably won't suffer much.
The same can't be said of Ovechkin, whose reason for staying home seems more pouty and a bit vindictive. In case you missed it, here's Ovie's transgression from last Sunday with Judge Shanahan narrating:
Ovechkin figured he'd get only a game, if anything, but three was more than he could take. He announced he would not go to Ottawa and justified his decision to the media this way:
Clearly, Ovie doesn't feel he did much wrong, although Shanny's video of his leap into the Penguins' Zbynek Michalek and the resulting head contact shows otherwise. Shanny explains how Ovechkin could and should have made acceptable contact. The notion of his being a repeat offender isn't part of Ovie's thinking on the subject, but with four priors on his rap sheet, three games is really getting off easy.
As for the All-Star Game, his initial response -- that his heart isn't in it after being disciplined -- is telling. And the NHL decided not to make a big deal about this, either. A league source told us that they've never had to deal with a suspended player who was scheduled to be in the All-Star Game. In the absence of a policy, they gave Ovechkin a pass.
"In light of yesterday's suspension, we informed the Capitals that, while Alex Ovechkin was still welcome to participate in this weekend's All-Star festivities in Ottawa, we would not be insisting that he do so," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said (quoted in USA Today). "We now understand that Alex has decided to withdraw from this weekend's events. Given the circumstances involved, we understand Mr. Ovechkin's decision in this regard, and have no intention of pursuing this matter further."
On the Morning Show with Elliot Price and Shaun Starr over TSN Radio 990 out of Montreal this morning, Bob McKenzie had a bit different view. He thinks three games was a bit harsh for a hit that usually gets one. But Ovechkin got more because he's a repeat offender and the league didn't want to be seen as being soft on a star player.
"They're really picking which hill they want to take stand on, where they want to pick their fight " McKenzie said. "I think the NHL feels they were pretty harsh with him and they're not going to pick a further fight that would make a three game suspension a four game suspension and they're just going to let matters lie." Had Ovechkin gotten that extra game, McKenzie added, it would have turned the whole weekend into the NHL and Ovie being mad at each other.
Too bad. The All-Star Game was made for charismatic personalities and talents like Alex Ovechkin. He can be suspended and in street clothes, but Ovie can still entertain, as he did Tuesday night following teammate Mathieu Perreault's hat trick.
Poor Ovie. Really. Once a darling of fans everywhere, especially in Canada, for his electric play, he'll probably be adding to the list of cities where fans boo him by snubbing Ottawa. Honestly, between the dip in his performance, the accusations that he's a coach killer, his club's mediocre play, his periodic bad acts that result in fines and suspensions, and now his avoiding All-Star Weekend (an event he admittedly loves), this guy -- who used to be the game's transcendent figure -- is caught up in a morass of incidents and trends that are rendering him a mere mortal.
I like the guy. A lot. But I keep getting the feeling that he's just a shooting star across our night sky, at first bright, but fleeting and getting dimmer all the time. I hope I'm wrong.
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