- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

MONTREAL | There are plenty of NHL stars here this weekend. It’s the “all” part that is misleading.

Injuries, family matters and the desire to get a few days of rest in the middle of a grueling season are reasons for some to stay home when the opportunity presents itself. However, if the All-Star Game is going to remain a viable spectacle in most seasons, the biggest names in the game need to show up.

Sidney Crosby got it half-right Friday when he arrived in Montreal to meet the media.

It was announced Thursday that a knee injury would keep the NHL’s most famous name and face out of Sunday’s game - the second straight year he was forced to miss the contest. But in order to maintain his eligibility for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first game after the break, Crosby had to fulfill some in-person obligations during the weekend.

“My plan was to come here from the moment that I decided that I wasn’t going to play due to injury,” said Crosby, who received a record 1.7 million fan votes. “I had a talk with [commissioner] Gary Bettman as to the capacity of me being here. I obviously wanted to be here but still want the focus to be on the guys that are here, too, and not the fact that I’m coming.”

Citing injuries, Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk of the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings also turned down their All-Star invitations, but they didn’t make it to Montreal and now will sit out Tuesday when their club returns to action against Columbus.

Lidstrom, who is dealing with an ankle injury, and Datsyuk, bothered by a sore hip, were not suspended and will still be paid even though they will miss a game. Their absences leave Detroit with no representatives in Montreal.

“I want to be here,” New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit said. “Being an All-Star is something very special for me. I’m really proud of it and I am really enjoying it. It’s not a matter of ‘have to go’; I want to be here.”

The league’s general managers made the decision a year ago to issue a bit of a punishment to those who skip the weekend. The change came to pass after several players pulled out of the festivities in Atlanta. It is not that anyone is questioning whether these players are actually hurt; it’s a matter of justifying how they can play either right before the break or right after, but not be well enough to showcase their talents on this stage.

“That’s their decision,” Crosby said. “It’s up to the player, up to the team to keep that in mind.”

Lidstrom is being punished even though the 38-year-old Norris Trophy-winning defenseman has played in 10 All-Star Games. Bettman wanted this rule enacted to protect the importance of the game.

“We’ve all got obligations to the fans, the rights-holders,” NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell said. “This game is being televised around the world. I feel bad for Nicklas Lidstrom. He’s been here how many years now? It’s unfair that he gets caught in this web.”

The reality is, the All-Star Game is still for show. The winning conference doesn’t earn any advantage when the Stanley Cup is on the line - unlike Major League Baseball, which hands out home-field advantage for the World Series to its All-Star winner. If taking a few days of personal time will ultimately help a player and his team do better in the playoffs, it seems like a no-brainer to make that choice at the expense of an All-Star appearance.

For some, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Montreal goalie Carey Price just made it back into the Canadiens’ lineup after a sprained ankle forced him to sit out eight games.

“I didn’t want to miss this,” said Price, a second-year player who was voted to start for the East. “This is one thing I really wanted to do the whole year. When I got hurt and I thought about missing this game, I was pretty heartbroken.”

None of the players were willing to question those who were missing.

“The only guys who can answer that are the guys that are hurt,” said New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, a first-time All-Star. “It’s easy for other guys to say he’s not hurt enough. I can only say I am really excited to be here.”

Added Carolina forward Eric Staal, a three-time All-Star: “You want to have the best players here, and hopefully everyone has that feeling as well. I enjoy being here. I love being a part of it.

“To be named is an honor, and it’s something that I will continue to keep coming to if they ask.”

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