NASHVILLE -- Last January, NHL.com wrote a story about a hockey rarity: Sidney Crosby attending the NHL All-Star Game.
He played in 2007. He missed 2008 with a high-ankle sprain, missing 6-8 weeks overall. He missed 2009 with a knee bruise that kept him out one game before the break. He missed 2011 and 2012 recovering from the horrific concussion. He didn’t play in 2006, 2010 or 2014, because the Olympics wiped out the game; ditto 2013, when the lockout did the same.
The story was published on Jan. 19. “I think just to be able to go there with all the guys representing different teams is good. Some of the guys are guys you've met before and others you haven't, so it's nice to be a part of that,” said Crosby.
On Jan. 22, an editor’s note was affixed to the top of the story:
“Sidney Crosby withdrew from the All-Star Game due to a lower-body injury.”
Crosby isn’t playing in the 2016 All-Star Game, either – failing to win the fans’ votes, getting squeezed out by the new format’s numbers game and, as of this writing, not coming on as an injury replacement. And yet Crosby’s name was all over the place on Thursday morning, as the Washington Capitals brazenly pulled Alex Ovechkin from the game to rest a nagging injury and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews opted out due to a flu bug that cost him the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes two nights ago.
The reactions ranged from immediate calls to have Crosby replace Ovechkin – his Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov eventually did – to those asking the big question:
Why does Crosby get slammed for ducking out of the All-Star Game while there’s an “understanding” for when Ovechkin and Toews do the same?
Both of these players will serve their mandatory one-game “suspension” for missing the All-Star Game, as Crosby did last season. It’s a toothless threat from the NHL in order to keep players from pulling out en masse, considering where many of these players’ teams are in the standings. But more on that in a bit.
But if the question is why they aren’t treated with the same vitriol as was Crosby, the answer is pretty simple.
Ovechkin will have now missed two All-Star Games of the seven he’s been elected to play in. He’s established himself as the clown prince of the NHL’s goofiest weekend: We remember the attempted trick shots, the goofy costumes and, perhaps most of all, how Ovechkin was the most compelling thing about the NHL fantasy draft. It’s hard to argue he hasn’t put in the time at the All-Star Game, which is why his absence sucks.
Toews has appeared in three All-Star Games, and served as the team captain for the fantasy draft in 2015. For a guy whose enthusiastic disposition makes Crosby seem like Chris Hardwick by comparison, Toews embraced the spotlight and was basically the face of the game.
He’s also played 322 games in the last four seasons, including the playoffs, to go along with his Olympic run in 2014. He’s on his fourth outdoor game this season too.
A lot of Crosby supporters, Penguins fans and general All-Star Game loathers didn’t appreciate my piece slamming Crosby’s decision to pull out of Columbus. I stand by it, because the idea an alleged “face of the NHL” can’t be bothered to show up for the World Cup of Hockey unveiling or any All-Star Game fanfare in a city less than three hours away (by car) from Pittsburgh is ridiculous. And it’s confirmed by the way the NHL has apparently just decided to stop asking Crosby to attend its signature in-season event, and fans have stopped flooding the ballot box for him. Because they’ve gotten the hint.
That said, you’re out of your mind if you think the NHL did either Ovechkin or Toews dirty with their mandatory suspensions.
It’s pretty amazing to see one of the NHL’s 30 teams drop its pants and piss all over the All-Star Game like the Washington Capitals did with Ovechkin.
“Alex has been an incredible ambassador for our team and the league, but we believe it is better if he uses this time to heal and ideally be completely healthy for the duration of the season,” wrote GM Brian MacLellan.
What the Capitals wagered on was that Ovechkin’s previous All-Star Game heavy lifting, and the general public’s basic understanding of frivolity vs. the ultimate prize, would earn them a pass. Essentially, it has: I’ve seen way more soft-handed criticism than condemnation of the Capitals essentially putting their own interests ahead of the NHL’s.
They shouldn’t, obviously. Even if they think it’s spending earned goodwill. It's a petty decision. The fans put him in the game, and the Capitals shouldn’t take him out days before the event for an injury he’s played with for months.
It’s moves like this that have many questioning the All-Star Game’s future and purpose – and as Ken Campbell put it, have created an event of such reduced import that the John Scott campaign can happen unabated.
But it also shows the NHL’s ability to “force” its stars to show up for the game is anemic. The Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks are more than willing to trade a regular-season game for several days off. They’re not the first, nor the last. And that’s a problem for the event.
And yet you have columnists like Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune torching the NHL for a policy that dares to attempt to keep its stars in the All-Star Game:
The league instituted the rule several years ago because it feared players doing the right thing for the games that really matter instead of bowing to the league’s desperate attempt to make the most meaningless event important.
Toews knows winning the Stanley Cup is important, not some cockamamie 3-on-3 shinny tourney. The NHL does not know that, and so, the NHL is suspending the best captain in the league for doing the right thing. Nice look, eh?
You feel a little bad for Toews, in that he’s sick and still gets the suspension. But that’s the policy, as it’s been since 2008. It has to be enforced. Hell, if Nicklas Lidstrom can be suspended for no-showing the All-Star Game, Jonathan Toews can too.
(One facet of this that never gets discussed: Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk would have avoided suspension had they just shown up and glad-handed some sponsors in Montreal back in 2009.)
While I support the League’s policy, there’s something rotten about all of this.
I really enjoy the All-Star Game, even in what’s admittedly its diminished capacity from how it played for me as a kid. The skills competition is one of my favorite things in sports. And when you’re on site for it, no matter the venue, it really does feel like a massive celebration of our silly League.
But every new edition feels like a desperate attempt to reanimate a corpse; or, in perhaps less extreme terms, put some new paint on a termite-munched house.
There's an All-Star Game the National Hockey League is putting on that has neither Sidney Crosby nor Alex Ovechkin playing in it, although both logically could. That doesn't feel right.
When we’re on the fourth format change for the game since 1998; when the NHL can’t get all of its stars out to the All-Star Game; when players are willing to play 81 games in a season rather than spend a weekend doing public relations; when the fan vote has been diminished to the point of apathy; and when the fan vote generates a result that compels the NHL to bully a player out of the game … it just makes you wonder if it’s time for something different at the midpoint of the season. Because none of this feels right.
Maybe the bye weeks that start next season build in the requisite rest and relaxation where players no longer feel the need to no-show the All-Star Game. Maybe the 3-on-3 format turns out to be a boon. I guess they're hope.
Something has to change. Because an adversarial relationship between the stars and the All-Star Game is the last thing the fans want. No one likes to attend the party of a child being dragged kicking and screaming into the room because they're cranky and hate clowns. (I may nor may not have been that child.)