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Will NHL players still smile for cameras, clown at All-Star game after bitter lockout?

Greg Wyshynski
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Feelings about the NHL All-Star game typically range from "nobody cares, cancel it" to "nobody cares, but the skills competition is pretty sweet." But the essential aim of the weekend is to better connect the biggest stars in the league with their fans.

Well, and the league's sponsors.

It's the same principle that's given us things like NHL players delivering tickets to fans or making appearances at local businesses or opening the doors of their houses to HBO's cameras. It's behavior that speaks to a partnership between the league and its employees, who act as front men for a $3.3 billion-generating business.

A big part of the reason the NHL has generated that money: That today's stars, many of them young, have gone further than any group that preceded them to promote the game. Clowning at the trick shot competition. Tweeting with the paying customers. Attending fan fests just so some slob in an ill-fitting sweater can take a mobile phone picture with them.

Players like Alex Ovechkin entered the league right after the 2004-05 lockout. Players like Michael Cammalleri were just getting established. Both players are the kinds of ambassadors the NHL wants to have amongst its players. Both players, however, have bitterly addressed this lockout and its consequences in recent weeks.

Will the league's top players still embrace their roles as promoters of the NHL and "partners" in its success if the owners take a large percentage of revenue from them in the next CBA?

If the players lose, does apathy win?

Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet had a great piece about this on Monday, wondering if this generation of stars would stop going the extra mile for a league that … well, is treating them like the cattle on The Devellano Ranch:

So will the players be willing to go the extra mile again once this meaningless lockout ends? I'm not so sure. For the young stars like Crosby, Ovie, Shea Weber and Ilya Kovolchuk who are locked into mega-million long-term deals, what is their incentive to grow the game now? To put more money into the 54 per cent share of the revenues the owners want? Why the NHL needed to drag these accommodating young guys through what should have been an easily avoidable financial war is beyond me.

… The bad blood Bettman created -- once again -- with the most important assets of the NHL's $3.3-billion empire should have been avoidable. This new generation is now learning to hate Gary Bettman, just as my generation did, because they know his strategy is to first take away the their livelihood, then construct a great deal for the owners based on players missing Ferrari payments.

But because Bettman chose this hard line of negotiating once again, his biggest obstacle won't just be getting the CBA deal he wants for his owners, it will be getting his players to jump through those promotional "hula hoops" that helped push revenue past $3 billion.

First, Kypreos is right: These players hate Bettman. Maybe not with the psychotic passion of a Chris Chelios, but they intensely dislike the man, to the point where those emotions alone would irrationally extend this work stoppage.

But to his point about jumping through promotional hoops for the NHL … as they say, all politics are local.

Maybe on a national level this means a few more players losing their heart and opting out of the NHL All-Star game — one can easily imagine that happening whenever they play the next one. Then we'll all have fun with the fines and suspensions in its aftermath.

But a lot of what the players do in the community is charitable. That's a lot of their face time. It's hard to imagine a group of NHLers rejected a request from a children's hospital because it would be a publicity opportunity for their team.

But even beyond that admittedly heartstring-tugging scenario — a lot of these guys aren't going to punish the home fans for the sins of the owners.

Oh, wait, check that: The sins of the other owners. We all know that the players' own executives and check-signers aren't to blame for this mess, or else they'd have been called out specifically by now …

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