There will undoubtedly be a huge legion of hockey fans – many of whom live in the D.C. area – who will be willing to give Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals a free pass for Ovechkin’s decision to skip the All-Star Game in San Jose later this month and take a one-game suspension in exchange for preserving his body for what he hopes will be another long playoff run.
After all, Ovechkin has done his part, they will say. He has played in seven of these events when other players have begged off with “injuries” and embraced every one of them with gusto. They’d be right. And from a practical perspective, it makes perfect sense for Ovechkin to do this. The Capitals are fairly comfortably positioned, in first place by a slim margin in the Metropolitan Division, and they have enough depth to endure the absence of their superstar scorer for the one game he’ll be forced to sit out – either Feb. 23 on the road against the Toronto Maple Leafs or Feb. 1 at home against the Calgary Flames.
Smart move all around. There’s no sense Ovechkin should have to endure the dog-and-pony show that is the All-Star Game when a second straight Stanley Cup is at stake. Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk did it in 2009 and the Red Wings made it to their second straight Cup final. Lidstrom did it again three years later when he basically told the NHL to not choose him for the game because he had no intention of playing. Teemu Selanne did it. Heck, Ovechkin did it three years ago, essentially to protest a three-game suspension he received. Football’s Pro Bowl, the ultimate useless all-star game, is littered with high-profile no-shows.
Of course, all of that ignores the fact that Ovechkin is essentially thumbing his nose at the standard players’ contract he signed. You know, the one that states, “The player agrees to give his services and to play hockey in all NHL games, all-star games, international hockey games and exhibition games to the best of his ability.” Ovechkin will have earned more than $135 million when his current contract expires after the 2020-21 season. He’s a huge draw for the All-Star Game and his approach to the event, including his antics in the breakaway competition, have helped form the brand that is Alex Ovechkin.
He has an obligation to be there. Anyone who is either voted to the game by the fans or selected by the league has an obligation. When the league scorched the earth with a season-long lockout in 2004-05, the two sides emerged from the wreckage professing that their relationship was now a partnership. The owners have been despicable in the treatment of their “partners” at times, but there’s absolutely no way this partnership is ever going to work if both sides don’t look out for the greater good of the league, sometimes over their own interests.
And that’s the crux of the matter here. It’s also part of the reason why the NHL lags far behind the other Big Three sports in terms of popularity. Far too often, players, owners and administrators fail to see the big picture in terms of promoting the sport and growing the game because it may stand in the way of personal goals. The NHL is the only league that does not take over operating its championship series because teams have made it clear they don’t want their routine disrupted. So while LeBron James makes himself available to the media – and by extension, the fans – three times on a game day during the NBA final, star players on teams in the Stanley Cup final often go days where they seem to be in the Witness Protection Program. Heck, this is a league that suppressed its star players for years for the sake of parity.
There is no question it is best for the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin for him to skip the All-Star Game. But is it what’s best for the league? Absolutely not. If the game is supposed to be a showcase of the NHL’s superstars, how can it be anything but a detriment that one of the league’s biggest chooses not be there so he can make a week-long bye week into a week-and-a-half? And if Ovechkin chooses to sit out the game against Toronto, there are people who have the opportunity to attend one game a year and saved it to watch Ovechkin play in person.
Regardless of which game Ovechkin chooses to sit out, he will have a nine-day break between games. And the league will go to San Jose where 40 other players will display their talents in front of a sold-out building. Corporate sponsors will be happy. The NHL will leave some kind of legacy in San Jose, as it always does in cities where it holds these events. And Ovechkin will have been spared travelling across the country twice and playing a couple hours of 3-on-3 hockey.
The reality is that from a hockey standpoint, the All-Star Game is a joke for everyone but those who are actually in attendance to watch it. So really, no harm, no foul. But it’s pretty difficult for anyone to take this event seriously when the biggest stars in the league treat it as a minor annoyance.