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Without key players, NHL all-star game suffers star shortage

Hockey's midseason showcase can't catch a break.

The challenge last year was just finding the NHL all-star game on TV. That was no easy chore once league officials exiled it to midweek on a network better known for covering the Tour de France, hunting, fishing and martial arts.

This time, the game is back in a familiar Sunday slot, and even casual followers of hockey have learned to dial up Versus on their remotes. Finding a player to light it up might prove an even taller order.

Pittsburgh phenom Sidney Crosby was generating plenty of buzz and positioning himself to become hockey's Tiger Woods. But the 20-year-old won't be on the ice when the puck drops, stuck rehabbing a high ankle sprain that will sideline the league's reigning scoring champion and MVP for six to eight weeks.

Making matters worse, goalies Roberto Luongo of Vancouver and Martin Brodeur of New Jersey, plus Detroit winger Henrik Zetterberg - all voted in by fans - will miss the game, too. As will four others selected by league officials and general managers.

"It's a physical game, these things happen," commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday in a telephone interview from New York. "The good news is that it usually happens that someone else steps up and makes the difference."

Like Woods, Crosby's value to his sport can't be overstated. The NHL's ratings are up this season - average viewership is around 262,000 per game, compared with 196,000 last season. It's encouraging enough that Versus recently exercised its option to carry league games through the 2010-11 season.

The numbers don't lend themselves to easily calculating a "Tiger effect," but anecdotal evidence abounds.

The jersey he wore during the second period of the Winter Classic, the outdoor game played New Year's Day in Buffalo before 71,000 snow-covered fans to rave reviews, just fetched US$45,000 at auction. The No. 87 Crosby jersey on the block as part of the league's "Hockey Fights Cancer" campaign hit $14,107.87 by midday Thursday - nearly double the $7,520 being offered for the sweater of Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin.

Speaking of him, Ovechkin would be the logical candidate to grab Crosby's starring role. After all, the two joined the NHL together, with the Russian taking rookie honours and their budding rivalry marketed as hockey's version of Bird vs. Magic.

But Bettman wasn't about to be pinned down on that one.

"With so much talent on the ice, seeing who grabs the spotlight is most of the fun at all-star games," he said.

"Remember Ray Bourque in Boston, or Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, or Owen Nolan in San Jose," he said. "We've been lucky that way."

That means you, Ilya Kovalchuk, and you, Marian Hossa. And really, how cool would it be if one or both hometown wingers wound up filling Crosby's skates and rewarding the Thrashers' long-suffering fans?

Atlanta was slated to play host to the all-star game in 2005 when a labour war scotched the season and the 2006 game was cancelled so players could compete in the Winter Olympics. Last year's game fared only slightly better after being moved to Wednesday night to escape the crush of weekend sports but wound up opposite "American Idol."

The final tally that night - American Idol drew an estimated 37 million viewers, the all-star Game an actual 672,948 - hints at that misguided choice. Without acknowledging the mistake, Bettman said, "We're back to Sunday for the more traditional fan. Plus, it's a lot more family friendly."

More important, the sport is also more user-friendly than it's been in a long time. Rule changes have cut out the wholesale hooking, holding, clutching and grabbing that passed for defence, a big reason why hockey is on a nice little roll. Scoring is up, as are revenue and attendance figures.

Maybe it's too much to ask that an all-star game missing so many leading lights would produce something as memorable as the 1996 contest, when Bourque scored the game-winner in the town where he laboured so honourably for so long with 37 seconds left; or the following year, when Nolan called his shot on a breakaway against goalie Dominik Hasek, then scored top shelf to complete his hat trick in San Jose.

Then again, maybe not.

"Hometown favourites," Bettman said, "have a way of showing up."

So tune in, if only to find out how the same network that featured a "Karate Kid' movie marathon last Sunday fares this week in its search to find a replacement for "Sid The Kid."



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