By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2009
MONTREAL, Jan. 24 -- When the puck is dropped Sunday at Bell Centre, most of the players named to the NHL All-Star Game will be here. Most, however, isn't good enough for the NHL anymore.
Increasingly frustrated with the game's biggest names bailing on its midseason exhibition, the league has instituted a policy that calls for one-game bans for players who skip the all-star game after playing in their teams' previous games, igniting a heated debate in this snow-covered city.
Detroit Red Wings veterans Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk -- both of whom bowed out to recover from nagging injuries -- are the first to face one-game sanctions under the new policy, but Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who also won't play in the game, will not, because he's in Montreal and available to participate in off-ice activities.
"You come here to Montreal and you're going to see all the players who laid the foundation for this game," said Colin Campbell, NHL vice president of hockey operations. "And now the responsibility is on the players who are active today. I know their teammates are off in the sunshine and they're still here working. These guys are compensated very well; there's an added responsibility for them."
NHL players association officials don't agree.
"We look at things from the standpoint of, 'Is it good for hockey?'," said Glenn Healy, a former NHL goaltender and current director of player affairs for the NHLPA. " 'Is it good for fans?' If a guy is banged up or has a tweak, and by playing in this game it will affect his ability to play in the stretch drive and the playoffs, then this isn't the place for them. Let them get better and let them get healed because our fans will benefit down the road."
Among the questions being raised: (1) What constitutes an injury, and when is that injury severe enough to justify missing the all-star game? and (2) Are teams such as the Red Wings gaining a competitive advantage over say, San Jose, because Datsyuk and Lidstrom are resting while Sharks center Joe Thornton is here participating?
After seven players skipped last season's game in Atlanta, Commissioner Gary Bettman proposed at the general managers meetings a new policy aimed at making sure fans who pay top dollar for tickets, as well as corporate sponsors, are treated to all of the stars.
Because neither Lidstrom nor Datsyuk missed any time with the Red Wings and did not show up in Montreal, they will be scratched against Columbus on Tuesday, the league said, but will not be docked any pay since it's not a suspension.
"Nick Lidstrom has been here nine years in a row," said Red Wings Coach Mike Babcock, who is the assistant coach for the Western Conference. "He has some tendinitis in his elbows, has all year long. Pavel Datsyuk left a one-goal game after the first timeout in the third period. So I think that pretty much sums all that up."
Asked about the players association's stance on the punishment, Healy shrugged and said: "That's way out of our control. We don't get a vote, right?"
The players have varying opinions on the subject.
"Just because you're not missing any games, doesn't mean you're not hurt," Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said. "Sometimes guys are playing hurt for a long time, and you don't know they are playing hurt. It's understandable."
Added Montreal Canadiens winger Alex Kovalev, "The main job for a player is what he does for your team," and Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal said: "If it's going to mean the difference between missing the playoffs, then yeah, I would miss it. Obviously, it's an honor to be selected for this. But if it's going to prevent our team from making the playoffs, that's something I don't want to do."
Crosby, though, said he understands the league's position.
"For an event like the all-star game, it's important to get everyone on board, especially the players," said Crosby, who earned a record 1.7 million fan votes. "So I don't see anything wrong with that. The standard for it is more towards making sure guys realize how important [the all-star game] is."
The league, however, will not sanction players for missing the YoungStars Game, which is part of the SuperSkills Competition. So Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom and Columbus's Steve Mason will not be punished for pulling out of the event. Backstrom said in a statement last week that he was not injured and simply wanted to rest.
"There's no hard and fast rule about" the YoungStars Game, Campbell said. "You can't really nail those guys. It's not even a real game. They're just coming for the one day to play an 18-minute game. It's not the all-star game; it's not the [main] thing people come to see."
All-Star Notes: Alex Ovechkin's reputation as the NHL's most colorful personality was affirmed Saturday night in the SuperSkills Breakaway Challenge.
After misfiring on his first three attempts, the Capitals' winger returned to the bench. With the help of friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, Ovechkin put on a pair of white sunglasses and a floppy sun hat (with a tiny Canadian flag sticking out of it), took a squirt of Gatorade and picked up two sticks, carrying one in each hand. He then dribbled the puck between the sticks and scored on the rebound left-handed, drawing huge applause from the capacity crowd. He won the event for the second straight year, earning 42.8 percent of the fan vote via text message.
Boston's Zdeno Chara set a hardest shot record and won the competition for the third consecutive year with a blast clocked at 105.4 mph. Al Iafrate's record of 105.2 mph had stood since 1993. Meantime, Edmonton's Andrew Cogliano was the fastest skater; Malkin had the most accurate shot; the sophomores defeated the rookies, 9-5, in the YoungStars Game; and Phoenix's Shane Doane won the elimination shootout.