Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The thrill is gone

Rendered practically pointless, the NHL All-Star Game is rapidly losing its lustre

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OTTAWA -- Gordie Howe walked through the media hotel lobby on Friday, still thinking enough of the NHL All-Star Game to make an appearance, even if today's most popular player doesn't see it that way.

It's hard to imagine Howe standing up in front of reporters back in the day and telling them he was taking a pass on the all-star game. Players in Howe's era, to a fault, did what the league asked of them and that included promoting hockey.

Today's leading men? Not so much. Despite their salaries being directly tied to hockey-generated revenues, if players don't want to attend the all-star game, the precedent has been set, so taking a pass isn't a big deal.

Mega-star Alex Ovechkin said "no thanks" to this year's game in Ottawa and won't face admonishments from the league or the Washington Capitals.

With Sidney Crosby unable to play due to post-concussion syndrome the NHL's star power is a little dimmer than usual. Ovechkin, however, has elected to take a warm-climate vacation and leave his league and game hanging.

The biggest name in the game is hurt and the Robin to his Batman has decided to take a powder. Talk about selfish. Talk about petulant. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Just don't talk about the honour that comes with being selected an all-star. Ovechkin can't, or won't, hear you.

Some, like Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen, still believe the all-star game is worth supporting.

"I always think this is kind of your personal choice, but for the fans, I don't think it's right," he said. "The fans are the ones who pay our salary. They wanted to see him. He's one of the best players in the world. At the same time, it's been a long season and maybe he's got a tiny injury for something. But as a fan, I wanted to see him here."

In the hockey world, that's a nuclear call-out. Players never say much about one another and for Timonen to go down this road, real resentment must be brewing among some players.

Is Ovechkin at fault? Certainly. But worse is the process that affords him the wiggle room to get out of it.

The game is a mish-mash, with the criteria for participation changing from year to year and the league constantly tinkering in search of a successful formula.

Enough with the tweaking. We don't need a remodel, it's a teardown job. Bulldoze it and start from scratch.

The most anticipated aspect of the weekend is the Fantasy Player Draft on Thursday night with the rest being a three-day drip of anticlimactic non-events culminating in Sunday's snoozer.

The NHL has made strides while working to include the fans as often as possible. Suspensions are no longer handed down to players without an explanation for the people that buy tickets. Brendan Shanahan gets out his handycam and shoots a video to explain what's what.

But the all-star game and its processes, which asks the fans to elect the game's starters, is still one of those behind-the-curtain deals where there is not enough transparency or accountability to those fans.

Cancelling the all-star game is going too far. Fans want to have a chance to see all the best players in hockey on the same ice at the same time. It should be a recipe for success and not disaster.

Lots is in place to make this a winner. What's missing is a strategy and the will and commitment to follow it.

Maybe Ovechkin has it right. Maybe he shouldn't feel obligated to attend because the ship is so rudderless.

Maybe that's the shame in all this.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 C3


Updated on Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 9:58 AM CST: adds fact box

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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