There are any number of ways to examine the decision by the NHL and the National Hockey League Players' Association to name Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom as captains for the all-star game, but my first thought was that it represented a clever bit of damage control, designed to take the spotlight away from Sidney Crosby and his views on concussions, head shots and the NHL's supplementary discipline process.
Crosby said Tuesday he'll show up in Raleigh for the Jan. 30 showcase if he's sufficiently recovered from the concussion that's kept him sidelined for most of January. That's in keeping with his long-standing commitment to help market the NHL, any way he possibly can.
His pledge comes after he spoke out about his head injury - he was dinged in back-to-back games this month, first by David Steckel of the Washington Capitals in the Winter Classic, then a few days later by Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman - and his voice on this important issue should not be lost in the shuffle here.
The NHL's concussion count is up to 33 for the season. Some have been more debilitating than others, but every one is serious. By now, that little bit of medical data should have penetrated even the most traditional craniums. There is no such thing as a minor concussion. Their effects are cumulative and once a player has been diagnosed with his first concussion, he tends to be more susceptible to sustaining them in the future.
That's a red flag for Crosby, but also for David Perron, currently sidelined in St. Louis, or for Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who is back playing again for the Minnesota Wild but needed 18 months to get healthy and right again.
My hope is that Crosby does go to Raleigh, even if he can't play, so he can make the point again - that the NHL introduced the rule forbidding blind-side head shots to do away with the sorts of hits that have him on the sidelines, and that if the message isn't sinking in around the league, then it's up to the NHL to introduce a more stringent penalty so that it finally does.
This would be a public safety announcement coming from a credible source that would resonate at every level of hockey, from the grassroots to the NHL.
Crosby's omission from all-star captain duties doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things anyway. Lidstrom and Staal are both defensible choices - Lidstrom because there is a long-established tradition of bestowing the C on a veteran player for the all-star game, and no one quite fits the bill the way the Detroit Red Wings captain does, in the midst of another sensational season, at 40.
Staal represents more of a reach, but it is hardly an outlandish appointment, either - partly a nod to his solid season with the Carolina Hurricanes, outscoring Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals among others, but mostly because of location, location, location. The game is being played in his city, a non-traditional NHL market. The decision to allow Staal to pick one of the two all-star teams, schoolyard-style, on the Friday before the actual game can only heighten interest locally.
All-star weekend is, after all, more of a trade show than an athletic competition, more about marketing and networking and selling than about goals and assists, wins and losses. And this year, thanks to the format tweak, the captains play a more prominent public role, selecting their teams in a modified fantasy draft that'll be broadcast live on TV and likely be the most intriguing part of the entire undertaking.
As for Crosby, he is the current generation's answer to Wayne Gretzky, the face of the NHL since arriving in Pittsburgh after the lockout, and well aware of the responsibility that entails. His presence on the Penguins' roster essentially saved the franchise, and his emerging rivalry with Ovechkin has become something real and tangible, where it was once forced and gimmicky.
Crosby doesn't rock the boat very often. Over the years, he has been willing to adopt the NHL's party line on all manner of league policy and generally helped keep the peace that way.
His divergence from the official league position on head shots is important and commendable. I just hope he keeps it up.