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The NHL All-Star Shame

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not that the Washington Capitals need an alibi, but is it too much to put this entire three-game funk on the atrocity of NHL all-star balloting? Feeling intense disrespect from fans, unable to rock the vote, much less the red, they have now scored an anemic three goals in nine periods at Verizon Center, which until last week was a really exciting place to see a hockey game.

This is no way to kick off that tilt of dueling messiahs tonight in Pittsburgh, where Sidney Crosby, fresh off obliterating a record for fan votes, squares off against Alex Ovechkin, somehow a bench-warmer for the Eastern Conference a week from Saturday at the midseason showcase in Montreal.

But then, that's the point. Maybe if Ovechkin didn't get snubbed so badly, and a few people besides Mike Green's teammates and family members voted for him -- and Bruce Boudreau didn't have to spend all that time answering questions about how the league's reigning MVP inexplicably finished sixth among forwards in his conference -- maybe the Capitals don't fall apart the last three games and get booed off their home ice last night against Edmonton.

"That's yesterday's news, let's move on," Boudreau said, when asked before his team lost three games in a row for just the second time this season and just the third time in Boudreau's tenure.

Pushed, he said Canadians took their all-star voting more seriously than Americans but never went so far as to alienate his base.

It's a reach and, in point of fact, has little or no bearing on why Washington has suddenly become fallible at home after starting an astonishing 18-1-1 at the Phone Booth. But as Ovechkin and his reeling teammates head north for another Caps-Penguins meeting, it bears repeating how ludicrous the NHL balloting process is and how much it illustrates the anti-Ovie bias covertly taking over hockey.

This isn't just about over-promoting Crosby, the apple-cheeked, well-spoken kid essentially plucked to be the next Great One from a frozen pond in Nova Scotia; it's about ignoring the fact there is a player in Washington bigger, stronger, better and more valuable to his own team, a player who happens to be from Russia, speaks halting English and has a front tooth missing.

Can you imagine if LeBron James got less than a third of the votes Kobe Bryant received in all-star voting, and Kobe's team was currently not in playoff contention -- like Crosby's Penguins at the moment? This would qualify as the scourge of the NBA, an injustice good for a 24-7 news cycle, focusing on the horrible bias against a grimacing young man from Cleveland who just didn't have Kobe's koala-bear smile or telegenic charm.

How Ovechkin finished sixth among East forwards -- receiving less than a half-million votes next to Crosby's 1.7 million and, comically, Montreal's Alex Tanguay's 1.2 million votes -- is one of the reasons the NHL suffers from post-lockout lack of interest. Compared with text messaging, in which the NHL allowed fans to vote for all the players on their home team by merely texting the name of their team, filling out a real form on the Internet became passe, almost analog.

This is also the league showcasing the Rangers-Penguins in its "Game of the Week" on NBC Sunday, with images of a euphoric Crosby and precise language that includes, "See the biggest star in the game, Sid the Kid."

No one grasped the All-Michael, All-The-Time phenomenon during the Jordan era more than Dick Ebersol, the NBC Sports president who had the foresight to market an entire league around one player. Ebersol is peerless in the sports-pageantry business; his decision to convince Beijing officials to move the swimming to the morning so Michael Phelps and friends could be seen live in the United States was seminal. He understands how a singular entity -- one otherworldly athlete -- can carry a network contract.

The problem with the NHL is he's got the wrong player. The vision of selling the NHL on NBC -- Nobody Beats Crosby -- comes at the expense of Ovechkin, a player nearly every genuine observer of the game believes is better than Crosby. Some even argue that Crosby's teammate Evgeni Malkin is more valuable to Pittsburgh.

Look, Crosby is an exceptional talent at just 21 years old. In his second season, he became the first teenager to lead a major sports league in scoring and the youngest to ever be a team captain. A prodigy from childhood, Crosby's first biography appeared on bookshelves his rookie season -- at 17. Boyishly handsome, he is indeed Canada's own. Every time he scores you could almost hear Don Cherry proudly intoning, "What a fine, young North American boy."

Ovechkin, meanwhile, is tied for second in goals scored and coming off a season in which he outshone Crosby at the All-Star Game and became the first player since his countryman Pavel Bure to score more than 60 goals in a season. He is authentic adrenaline once he hops the boards and hydroplanes toward the net. Most nights there are the rushes Ovechkin takes part in during a game -- 24 minutes of pulsating, anything-can-happen hockey. Then there's the game's other 36 minutes.

Again, Crosby is a very nice player, one of the most gifted youngsters in the game. Ovechkin is Sputnik on ice. It's safe to make an argument that he's the best team player in North American sports at the moment -- and it's a flat-out crime that he's a backup at the league's all-star game.

"He's on my team, so of course I'm going to say that," Boudreau said. "I'm betting you Michel Therrien thinks Malkin and Crosby, that the Cavs' coach thinks it's LeBron and that Phil Jackson thinks it's Kobe. You can go on and on -- David Ortiz with the Red Sox.

"Is he the best? That's up to speculation and anybody can guess. I think everybody knows. Every town we go into, everybody is talking about Alex Ovechkin. So I've got to believe he's pretty well known out there. Should he be the poster boy? I don't know. There's a few to choose from."

The NHL and NBC have made their decision. Just call up the "Game of the Week" commercial on YouTube. If the Caps were playing the Penguins on Sunday, it would essentially be billed as Sid the Kid vs. Alex the Ogre.

Did we mention the attention the NHL has been getting lately is for Crosby punching a player in the groin during a scrum, a guy biting an enforcer's finger and Ottawa and Buffalo swapping haymakers? In a world of mixed martial arts submissions, Gary Bettman still tips his hat to the notion that violence sells almost as much as pretty boys from Pittsburgh.

Between voting and marketing, you see what's happening, don't you? Cherry's xenophobia is spreading south, to a provincial North American city near you, where they love how Sidney Crosby looks, how he plays and where he's from.

And they barely tolerate the fact that Alex Ovechkin is better.

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