All-star games are having a strange moment. From baseball’s Royals takeover to Justin Bieber’s NBA voting power to the latest NHL fan rebellion — which nudged John Scott into an unlikely all-star berth — it’s become hard to identify what the purpose of an all-star nod is, or should be. Is it about jokes? About stretching municipal voting muscles? Is it, like life itself, ultimately without meaning, and hardly worth even pondering?
But just when you’re tempted to conclude “the whole thing is an entertainment-infused goof, and the rosters don’t really matter,” you run up against real passion dripping onto this palate of indifference. This week, as one quarterback after another dropped out of the Pro Bowl, Kirk Cousins — he of the best passing season in Redskins history — still couldn’t find his way to Hawaii. Cousins had indisputably better numbers than Jameis Winston or Tyrod Taylor. His team finished with a better record. And whether you think this matters, he beat both quarterbacks head-to-head. Didn’t help.
Sure, this tiniest of slights shouldn’t matter — I can’t remember the last time I actually watched the Pro Bowl — but a huge number of Redskins fans took offense to the news. Whether they care about the actual game or not (they don’t), a Pro Bowl berth feels like the proper end to a rational equation: this guy entered the season amid doubt and scorn, and he piled up absurd numbers for an overachieving team, and he led Washington to a division title, and the result is this silly but somehow satisfying honor. It matters in the same way so many sports stories matter: because there’s a sense of justice and even pleasure in the achievement of a deserved result. People like that.
Which brings us to another local All-Star story: that of the perpetually passed over Nicklas Backstrom, who finally got his honor this season. Since entering the NHL in 2007, Backstrom is eighth in points and third in assists. Only four players have more multi-point games over that span: Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin and Henrik Sedin. How could a player in that class never be an All-Star? What’s the hidden explanation we’ve been missing? What, exactly, does the “star” part of the game’s name mean?
Now, you are probably not going to watch the entire NHL All-Star game. I am going to be in Nashville for part of this weekend, and I am probably not going to watch the entire NHL All-Star game. Backstrom surely has a few close friends and relatives who are not going to watch the entire NHL All-Star game. So why did Caps Coach Barry Trotz put so much time and energy into lobbying for Backstrom to spend his break not healing up somewhere peaceful, but playing hockey in Nashville?
“It was important to me,” Trotz said on Tuesday. “Because I think when you have a player of his caliber, to not be recognized … I think it is a little bit of a travesty in some ways that he hasn’t got the attention that he deserves. I think when you do a job as well as he has for so long — and no one even paid attention to it, really. They’d sort of blow it by: ‘He’s a good player.’ He’s a great player. And I didn’t want that to go by, people missing that moment where they recognize a great player playing on a nightly basis and not really pay attention to it.
“I think Nick’s okay with it,” Trotz went on. “But I wasn’t. I think I had to shed some light on it, and I think I did a good job shedding some light on it, because I got you to come over to the dark side and recognize how good of a player he is.”
This, of course, has been common knowledge in Washington for years. Backstrom may be under-appreciated, but stories of his under-appreciation haven’t been. Maybe fans (and media members) here don’t follow the league closely enough to put together a perfect All-Star roster, but there has been a strong sense that Washington’s second-best player is taken for granted locally, and virtually ignored nationally, and that perhaps an All-Star Game would signal a change.
What change, exactly? That Washington’s center would henceforth be “All-Star Nicklas Backstrom.” That his spot as one of the 10 or 20 best hockey players in the world would be confirmed. That the nagging feeling of something slightly amiss — even in a frivolous event with unimpressive viewership — would go away.
“I think in our locker room, everybody knows he’s the kind of guy who deserves to be there; not [just] this year, previous years as well,” Alex Ovechkin said on Tuesday. “Obviously his skill is unbelievable. … He can play offensive hockey, he can play defensive hockey. It’s pretty amazing.”
There will be many more words written about the under-the-radar Backstrom this week, which is fitting. And those words probably won’t transform Backstrom’s visibility. People who haven’t paid attention to the Caps in the past won’t suddenly start because their top line now has two All-Stars instead of one. He isn’t going to become an endorsement darling. Nor will he prompt future All-Star voting campaigns. There is no ironic charm to Nick Backstrom, All-Star.
But people who follow this one team will feel that a wrong has been corrected, that all those scribbles over the lines have now been erased, that this year’s All-Star roster is a little bit nearer to perfection. There’s a satisfaction in that which can’t be found from a Justin Bieber vote, a satisfaction anyone who has ever followed The Voice or America’s Got Talent could understand. Sometimes, you just want the right person to win.
Washington’s coach would agree.
“As I said, I didn’t know enough about him when I was [in the Western Conference], because we didn’t see him,” Trotz said. “I knew he was a good player, but when you see him on a daily basis, and you see him game-in and game-out, and you see him in pressure situations, offensively, defensively, big moments — I mean, Nicky always stands up and delivers. So that’s why it was really important to me.”