The NHL all-star game is a funny animal – more of a trade show than an actual sporting competition. A chance for the league to exhale past the halfway point of the season before moving into the stretch drive, where the games suddenly take on a real meaning.
It has been this way since roughly the mid-1990s. Some old-timers can remember when players gave no quarter in the all-star game, wanted to attend, wanted to win and (gasp) sometimes, even threw the odd bodycheck.
The 2012 edition in Ottawa will not be so, thus it's hard to muster any sort of outrage for the steady stream of players begging off, preferring to spend the break as just that – a week to get away from the grind of the NHL season.
It is particularly easy to sympathize with the league's older guard such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne and Daniel Alfredsson, who is participating as the weekend's unofficial host after being voted into the starting lineup by Ottawa fans (who stuffed the ballot box to also get Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Erik Karlsson into the game).
All have had great seasons, but the fact the NHL's perennial scoring leaders, Daniel and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, were down at Nos. 19 and 21 in the balloting tells you all you need to know about the flawed methodology of that process.
Lidstrom is 41. Three years ago, he withdrew from the all-star game in Montreal, citing a recurring issue of tendinitis that he wanted to rest over the break.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman played hardball with Lidstrom and teammate Pavel Datsyuk that year. His point was: If you were too injured to play in an all-star game, then you better be too injured to play in the first game after the break, too. So the Red Wings went into a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets without Lidstrom and Datsyuk. The Red Wings imagined themselves as Stanley Cup contenders, and figured the most productive way for their stars to spend the break was to rest and recuperate.
There was a backlash toward Bettman's ruling and he hasn't again invoked the policy, adopted by the board of governors in 2008. This year, when the NHL's hockey operations department was casting about for the 36 players to fill out the all-star teams, they quietly approached both Lidstrom and to Selanne, 41, beforehand and asked about their intentions.
Both politely said: Thanks, but no thanks.
Selanne happened to be passing through Calgary the day the announcements were made and his body language and twinkling smile were telling, in explaining how the whole thing went down.
Selanne asked the league to send his teammate Corey Perry instead, on the grounds Perry was the NHL's reigning most valuable player. Left unsaid was the fact Selanne talked it over with Perry beforehand, because he didn't want to burden a teammate with an obligation unless he genuinely wanted to go.
As it happens, Perry did. He played his junior hockey in London, Ont., hails from Peterborough, Ont., and his family has Senators season tickets. Since the Ducks do not visit Ottawa this season, it gives Perry a chance to go home for four or five days and hang around with friends and family, on the NHL's nickel, for an event that can be fun for some of the players some of the time.
Last year, Calgary Flames forward Jarome Iginla withdrew because he wanted to spend the break with his grandmother in Edmonton; so that put an obligation on Iginla to attend this year. Last year, Lidstrom acted as one of the league captains, presiding good-naturedly over the first "fantasy" draft, where the players were chosen schoolyard style – and he fully bought into the process. It was the 11th all-star appearance of his career (which, to my way of thinking, gives him the right to bow out this time around).
Alfredsson is an Ottawa institution, and he was going to stay in town for all-star weekend anyway, even if he wasn't selected to play in the game. However, he acknowledged had the geography been reversed, he might have thought twice about playing.
"Say if the all-star game was in Anaheim, and I would have to leave my family because they couldn't get away, it would be tough, no question," Alfredsson said.
The Senators finished up the pre-all-star game portion of their schedule with a game against the Coyotes in Phoenix on Tuesday, and the expectation was the charter flight home would be half-full, with many players either opting to stay in Arizona for the break or depart from there for warmer climates.
Injury absences – or the simple wear-and-tear of a long season on an older player – are a lot different to explain (and easier to forgive) than Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin withdrawing in a snit over the fact he was suspended three games by the NHL player safety department.
That was always going to be a tough call for discipline czar Brendan Shanahan – assessing supplementary discipline against Ovechkin in a week when the league wanted to stay on his good side.
At some point, the 26-year-old, who already has four all-star appearances under his belt, will find himself in the same category as Lidstrom, Selanne and others – able to gracefully say no thanks to the all-star opportunity and handing the obligation over to the league's younger (and generally more eager) players.
But in the aftermath of his suspension for a head shot, it just comes across as more spoiled-brat behaviour.
There's an easy fix to the problem: Whenever a player reaches the age of 30, he should have the right to opt out of an all-star game if he shows up the year before. It would be a workable compromise, permitting players to meet their obligations to market the league but spreading the burden to do so over a larger playing population.
And frankly, the way the NHL is today, with a revolving cast of recognizable stars, but not one that is the real discernible face of the league, it would keep everybody happy.