- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dale Hunter can’t imagine an NHL All-Star Game without a “special player” such as Alex Ovechkin. Every time the game has been held during Ovechkin’s career, the Washington Capitals star has been there.

That won’t change later this month, as Ovechkin will make his fifth All-Star appearance despite questionable numbers. But as one of the faces of the NHL, and with Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby absent, Ovechkin has a place in the All-Star Game that’s hard to argue from an entertainment standpoint.

“It’s important to have him there for the league because he draws so [many] fans,” Capitals forward Jason Chimera said. “The passion he has for the game, I think it’s a no-brainer.”

Ovechkin’s 17 goals, 16 assists and a minus-8 rating are pedestrian by the lofty standards he set earlier in his career when he earned the distinction of being one of the best players in the world. Going into Thursday night’s games, his 33 points tied him for 46th among forwards; 24 forwards made the All-Star Game.

Asked if he thought he deserved to be an All-Star, Ovechkin wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“On my team right now, we have lots of guys who can be an All-Star. I don’t know. It’s not my decision,” he said before the selections were announced. “It’s lots of attention there, lots of fans. You just play with the great players over there. It’s a nice time.”

The Caps wound up with two All-Star selections, with defenseman Dennis Wideman being picked for the first time. Leading scorer Nicklas Backstrom, whom Ovechkin said deserved to go “a hundred percent,” was not chosen, though his uncertain status with a head injury may have played into the decision.

Wideman making it came as a surprise, even to the 28-year-old who wondered if he had been traded when general manager George McPhee called him Thursday.

“When he called me, I was like, ‘Aw man, where am I going now?’ … I was pretty excited and a little caught off-guard and a little shocked,” Wideman said. “In my experience, when a GM calls you, it’s usually not good news.”

It was great news for a player whose 2010-11 season was cut short with a right leg hematoma and whose game has rebounded after a month of November with a minus-13 rating. And while Wideman didn’t expect a phone call of All-Star congratulations, he was certain that Ovechkin belonged in Ottawa.

“Ovi’s an exciting player to watch,” Wideman said. “Whenever he gets the puck or whenever he’s on the ice you never know what he’s going to do or what kind of goal he’s going to score, and he scores a lot of highlight-reel, top-end goals.”

Ovechkin showed his eccentric personality at the 2009 All-Star skills competition in Montreal when he donned a hat with a Canadian flag sticking out as part of the breakaway challenge, hockey’s version of the slam dunk contest. He already had blossomed as a star, but at that moment he built his reputation as one of the premier entertainers in the game.

“Every time I go to All-Star Game, it’s all about fans and the fans have to enjoy it,” Ovechkin said.

Ovechkin will take part in the Jan. 29 game and the Jan. 28 skills competition, even though he joked that he’s “retired” from the skills festivities. His participation in the breakaway challenge and other events is likely a reason why he was attractive from the NHL’s perspective despite some subpar stats.

It’s also, as Ovechkin said, an event “all about the fans,” and teammates pointed out that fans want the superstar in the game.

“I think it’s good for the sport. He’s one of the most well-known names in hockey,” Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said. “If you want to sell the game, you’ve got to sell it with a name like Ovechkin.”