All-Star game lacks appeal

Ross McKeon

Nice timing, eh?

With football winding down and baseball's spring training still a ways off, a small window of opportunity presents itself for the National Hockey League to attract more attention than it's used to receiving.

So, of course, the game's most promoted star – Sidney Crosby – goes down to injury for up to two months on the eve of an NHL showcase event, its All-Star game, when he otherwise would have fulfilled his unsolicited responsibility to carry the flag for the NHL.

Speaking of Sunday's "midseason shinny classic," hardly representative of what the game really looks like, selected players are bailing left and right.

Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur, Henrik Zetterberg and Sergei Zubov are the biggest names either pointing to nagging injuries or family obligations to skip the trip to the hockey hotbed of Atlanta, which is already on its second NHL franchise.

Toronto's Mats Sundin went the preemptive rout, informing those who make roster selections not to bother calling his name, he wasn't going to go even if invited. He says he needs the rest. You'd think the way things are going where he plays he'd welcome a nice long weekend as far away from Toronto as he could get.

The new collective bargaining agreement is proving to be a tough animal for general managers and a trade-starved league. Trades, or even the news of possible transactions, make headlines. But when there are no deals, the rumors don't carry much weight. No rumors, no buzz, and even less attention.

And the NHL is still not receiving the national television exposure it wants and needs. The game is better than pre-lockout, even taking into account the fact it was better 20 years ago. But not enough fans, or potential fans can judge for themselves without buying a ticket or owning a satellite.

Does it ever change for the NHL?

Gary Bettman is sure to hear about these topics when the league's commissioner holds a Q&A during this weekend's festivities. He'll gloss over all the negative queries in his glass-half-full way, accentuating league attendance is up for the umpteenth season (but we see the empty seats) and how wonderful the product is on the ice (when plenty would beg to differ).

It's been another start and stop year for the NHL. Every time you think they're on to something good the league does something that makes no sense – did it really need those new uniforms? Can we go back to the old ones now please, circa 1982?

Exposure is the No. 1 challenge for the league. Outstanding players such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin aren't featured enough because they don't play for the Penguins, Rangers or Red Wings. They play for bad teams, regardless of what the parity in the standings suggest, as Atlanta and Washington, are the only two that have fired coaches this season.

Scoring is down, the size of goaltenders' equipment is up, the schedule is getting changed because no one likes having to wait three years to see every opponent. Where have you gone Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Ed Belfour, Super Mario and No. 99?

The only game anyone talked about during the first half of the season was played outdoors. It took a New Year's Day gimmick in Buffalo to get more than the hard-core fans to tune in. The Nielsen overnight ratings (2.6) translate to almost 3 million households tuned in for NBC's telecast of the Pittsburgh-Buffalo game, which is the highest regular-season rating in the United States since 1996. And the figure more than doubled the average regular-season rating on NBC last season.

Is it any wonder why the NHL can't do any better than Versus?

With the popularity and buzz the Winter Classic created, at least for a few days, the league should have been poised to announce when and where the next outdoor game would occur. It was the No. 1 question on many minds. Now those same inquisitive onlookers have turned their attention elsewhere.

Where does the league turn now for attention? The All-Star game is sure to be a dud. You can't replicate a true hockey game when the emotion and competitiveness of the event is removed.

The flurry of trades will come in a one-week span late next month by the Feb. 26 deadline. Crosby is lost for much if not all of the regular season. But what does it say about a league that is so dependant on one player in the first place?

Sounds like Bettman will have a lot to answer this weekend. At least there's one thing to look forward to.