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Free Ovie!

January 8, 2019, 9:21 AM ET [10 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Every game Alex Ovechkin doesn’t play takes away .62 of a goal, based on his career percentage, sixth all-time. Suspending him for even one of them helps the game . . . how?

Teaches a lesson to a player who bitterly decried the NHL’s decision not to participate in the 2016 Olympics because he wanted to play for his country and his sport in its highest level of competition? Helps saves the All Star Game, which anyone who ever has watched over the last 30 years agrees is not worth saving at the expense of a portion of the regular season; the same 82 games the league argued were too precious to interrupt to participate at PyeongChang?

The Capitals will play without one of the league’s greatest drawing cards on either January 23 or February 1 because the league is meting out its standard punishment for declining an All Star Game invitation, even though Ovechkin has dutifully reported for 10 of them.

Of course the league will want Ovechkin to participate in every media and promotional event as he draws closer to Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894 goals, which is in within the Great Eight’s reach. Assuming that he gets just 10 more this year–we would give him 10.62, but the league is making him miss a game–Ovechkin will need to average just over 40 for the next six seasons to assail what had seemed unassailable, as scoring was depressed over the first 12 seasons of his career.

Thanks to Gretzky’s staggering accomplishments, it has been 25 years since there has been a run at one of the game’s most cherished records. So one would think the NHL would be rooting for Ovechkin, not taking a game away from him, or six more games over the next six years, should he get stubborn about this.

Long way to go for Alex, sure, to pass Gretzky at what would be age 39. So what’s one game out of 80? Here is the message the NHL is sending: Toronto, we assume you will show up anyway on Jan. 23 because you always do, whether we give you the greatest goal scorer in the game or not. Sorry, Washington, we got your season-ticket money already for the game on February 1 so what do we care if we withhold the No. 1 guy you pay to see, even though he is not injured?

The All Star Game is a no-check joke, has been since the scores climbed routinely into double digits during the nineties. It remains uncompetitive whether you want to divide the teams into four or two; play 60 minutes or 20, put five skaters on the ice or three. The fewer the better, of course. Since there is no checking anyway, we will trick it up, just like overtime, so nobody can notice.

What does it say about the prestige of this event when the league has to threaten punishment to get its honorees to participate? What contribution does the All Star Game make to the tradition of the sport when the NHL has felt compelled to try to jack up the competitive level of the uh, contest by changing the format five times without a sign any of them have increased the participants’ heart rate?

Gretzky was MVP in the last All Star Game he every played, in Tampa in 1999, which was kind of neat. The one memorable moment since has been a good laugh at the event’s expense– enforcer John Scott being voted in by the fans and then scoring two goals, so easy is that to do in a contest mostly of who can get out of the way of the shooters and passers the fastest.

Conceived as a dream game for a charitable cause, indeed it’s sweet dreams at an All Star Game after about four shifts. ZZZZZZZZZZZZ. The players are seemingly numb to the bad smell being left by that their refusal to compete seriously, the crowds correspondingly in a daze. Any plays made are meaningless for lack of anyone trying to stop them, except by the goalies, whose egos are saved by the impossibility of success.

The list of franchises waiting to stage the All Star Game is short; Montreal, Los Angeles and St. Louis next year being the only pre-1970 clubs hosting so since 2000, the Kings twice, which is a statement about the demand for this event in other cities. Mark these words: The day is coming that the All Star Game will be in Vegas every year, cementing its status as a party, not a real contest.

Right, it’s all about the weekend, not the game. But what does it tell you that the sideshow–the skills competition–is better than the main event?

During the All Rookie game in Dallas in 2007, NHL Veep Colie Campbell had to scold the participants to pick up the embarrassing pace in a proceeding that since has disappeared, and just when, Hockey Buzz has learned, Sealy, Serta and My Pillow were all lined up as sponsors for big bucks. Very short-sided. At an All Star Game the players are there to rest their weary bones in addition to quenching their thirsts.

There is no contrived format – save perhaps the Tom Wilsons vs. the Brad Marchands –that would raise the ante enough to get these players to want to win. As a result, the pre-game introductions are the show, but who is being introduced? The larger the league gets, the more teams that have to be represented, the more the honor of selection diminishes, no matter who is picking the teams–fans, coaches, committees or Gil Stein and Alan Eagleson, just for old times sake.

Of all the sports wrestling with the diminished luster of their All Star Game, hockey and football suffer the most because their games are played with the most apparent passion. But all these no-longer classics suffer from growth in the television exposure of the game.

Back in the day when all you could see on television were your local team’s road games and a network Game of the Week–the All Star Game was a much-anticipated chance to see the great players. Now, for $150 for a season, you can watch every game Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Ovechkin play and against real competition, too.

Major League Baseball felt compelled to raise the ante by awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the league winning the All Star Game, a one-thing-having-no-relevance-to-the-other piece of illogic that incentivized nothing until a new commissioner got rid of the practice, thank goodness.

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to cancel the Pro Bowl unless somebody showed they gave a bleep, it turned out the players wanted to save their trips to Hawaii. As the fans there got bored with the ankle tackling, now the players get Orlando instead, Sydney wants it, a good place for it. Enjoy the 20-hour flight.

Pitchers show up for the baseball game but participate only if it won’t cause them to miss their next start. Not unreasonable, as the All Star Game is, after all, an exhibition.

You can’t breathe new life into it unless you change the players’ attitudes. And since we have seen how hard the hockey millionaires have competed in Olympics and World Cups for minimal financial reward, who dares criticize them for showing up for the All Star Game in the mood for a light skate and a party? Who dares rip Ovechkin for putting himself above the sport when, on the excuse of growing the league, never mind the sport, the NHL took its toys and went home, refusing to free its players to play in the 2016 Olympics?

Denying a player like Ovechkin that privilege, and then punishing him a league game at the excuse of protecting an indifferent exhibition, is unfathomably twisted. Who is going to miss the Great Eight in San Jose? Even with him, the All Star Game wouldn’t be a compelling event.
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