- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009

For many Capitals fans, it was an absolute outrage. Coach Bruce Boudreau called it “dumb.”

When the NHL announced Saturday the starters for its All-Star Game, Alex Ovechkin, the reigning Hart Trophy winner and second-leading scorer in the NHL, was not on the list.

It may be a case of terrible injustice, but it’s also a story of fans in two intensely passionate hockey towns - Montreal and Pittsburgh - battling it out through voting online and text messaging. The final All-Star tallies: two Penguins and four Canadiens in the Eastern Conference starting lineup, with Ovechkin finishing a distant sixth in the voting among Eastern Conference forwards.

Ovechkin, for his part, isn’t complaining. He likely will make the game as a reserve.

“It’s OK,” he said in an on-ice interview with Comcast SportsNet after Saturday’s game. “It’s always nice to be there. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a starter or not. I always have fun, and I think it will be a [great] time for me, I think.”

Though Ovechkin did start in last year’s game, his finish behind established stars like the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin is not necessarily surprising. But the sheer volume of votes in favor of those players is a surprise, and the support for some other Penguins and Canadiens - including those who have not even played because of injury - is especially striking.

Ovechkin finished with 470,276 votes, about a quarter of the record 1.7 million votes cast for Crosby. The Canadiens’ Alex Tanguay, who finished fifth among Eastern Conference forwards, had nearly three times as many votes as Ovechkin.

Other Eastern Conference players with more votes than Ovechkin include Canadiens defenseman Mike Komisarek, who missed a month to injury; Montreal forward Saku Koivu, out since mid-December; and Penguins defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, who have missed all or part of this season with injuries.

League and team officials said Ovechkin’s snub has less to do with a lack of respect for the Russian star and more to do with the high level of hockey enthusiasm in Pittsburgh and Montreal.

But the voting drew complaints from many fans from the start. The NHL voided thousands of votes from Montreal that were determined to have come from an automated program rather than individuals. The league bolstered its security to prevent that kind of voter fraud from occurring again and said it has validated the final tallies. Still, many fans were unhappy with the league’s move to allow text message voting, especially a feature permitting fans to vote for all eligible members of a single team with the press of a button.

“As a hockey fan, I would much rather see the best players in the world playing together than have a few teams stuff the ballot box for their favorites,” said Rick Moldovanyi, founder of the Penguins Experience blog. Despite being a Penguins fan, Moldovanyi is urging fans to boycott the game.

“All of the players [in] the starting lineup are members of four teams,” Moldovanyi said, referring to a similar discrepancy in the Western Conference in which only members of the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks were voted to the starting lineup. “That leaves many great players, including Alexander Ovechkin, out of the starting lineup.”

Canadiens officials said All-Star support for Montreal players stems largely from excitement over the city hosting the Jan. 25 game, coupled with buzz over the franchise’s 100th anniversary. They said the level of support surprised even them.

“We did a small amount of campaigning but nothing out of the unusual,” Canadiens spokesman Donald Beauchamp said. “Frankly, we don’t know why it ended up this way. We’re at a loss.”

NHL spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur said sports fans in Montreal historically have stuffed the ballot box for local players when an All-Star Game is held in the city. Baseball’s 1982 All-Star Game, for instance, featured four Expos in the starting lineup at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

“The Montreal fans are very, very ferocious in wanting their players to succeed, and good for them,” Mansur said.

As for the massive support for the Penguins, team officials said fans took it personally after Montreal players dominated the votes early on.

“We noticed early that the Canadiens jumped out to huge leads at all six positions,” Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan said. “At that point, we’re sitting there with the top scorer in the league [Malkin]. So we got a little more aggressive at that point to marketing to our fans. Obviously our fans responded energetically, as they usually do.”

McMillan said Penguins players also got a boost from local radio stations, and Malkin and Crosby eventually surged to the top two positions. By then, Ovechkin was left in the dust.

The Capitals last year were recognized by the NHL for their promotion of the league’s All-Star Game, and team officials said they boosted efforts to encourage voting this season. The Caps rolled out banner advertisements online and through e-mails to all ticket holders in their database and partnered with area ice rinks. During games, fans were urged to vote often.

“We had a very comprehensive and integrated marketing plan, and we did more than we did last year,” said Tim McDermott, the Capitals’ chief marketing officer. “It raises an eyebrow as to why he’s not in the starting lineup. The NHL has given fans control, and that’s an awesome thing. The challenge with that is that it allows the superpassionate fans to swing the vote because they can vote as many times as they like.”

Mansur said the league had no immediate plans to change the voting system but would review it.

“We’re going to look at everything and how it worked,” she said. “It was a tremendous success in terms of the amount of votes. It was a tremendous success in terms of fan activities, some markets more than others.

“Among all the clubs, and I think everybody’s going to take a look at this and say, ‘Boy, next year, where’s my activation?’”

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