Early Thursday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced superstar center Evgeni Malkin would not participate in the 2015 NHL all-star game in Columbus due to a lower-body injury. Early Thursday evening, they took even more wind out of the event by removing fellow phenom Sidney Crosby from all-star weekend for the same reason. The team specified no timetable for Malkin's return to action, while Crosby is expected to miss approximately one week and won't be allowed to play in Pittsburgh’s Jan. 27 game.
Having both players back in the lineup is obviously the proper priority for Penguins management, but the undeniable reality is the absence of both stars is a big blow to an all-star game that's going to be without hometown hero Sergei Bobrovsky for injury reasons and without P.K. Subban for preposterous reasons – and it underscores how much lustre the game has lost.
In some ways, it's not the league's fault the all-star game has become more of a contractual burden than an event that captures the heart of the hockey-watching public outside of the host city. All-star games in general are an anachronism from a pre-satellite TV era, and in the NHL's case, the novelty of modern inventions such as the Winter Classic have pushed the all-star game into the shadows.
But in other ways, the league should have seen this coming.
With a schedule compressed as tightly as any in pro sports, NHL brass are already taxing the players' bodies to a dangerous degree. With the amount of money teams have tied up in cornerstone players such as Crosby or Malkin, why shouldn't they be safe rather than sorry and pull them from a game that ultimately means nothing?
This is why combining the all-star game with the Winter Classic makes so much sense. Under that type of setup, star players who've yet to experience an outdoor game would have motivation to participate, and if weather wound up being inclement and forced a cancellation or if the ice conditions made a mockery of the competitive value of the game, nobody would be devastated.
Unfortunately, by sticking to this format, the NHL is inviting situations like the one that happened in 2009, when they suffered the embarrassment of giving de facto suspensions to Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk for not showing up. In that same year, Crosby traveled to Montreal and showed his face at all-star weekend rather than miss out on a regular-season game as Datsyuk and Lidstrom did. This time, he's taking the additional game off, and it has nothing to do with the good people of Columbus.
It has everything to do with the Seinfeld event of the hockey world: a game about nothing, and a product that doesn't resemble actual NHL hockey at all. Small wonder it's no longer the big-name magnet it once was.