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Alex Ovechkin's Choice

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"I love the game; it's great event. I'd love to be there, but I'm suspended. I don't want to be a target. I feel I'm not deserving to be there right now. If I suspended, I have to be suspended. That's why I give up my roster [spot]." - Alex Ovechkin

When the NHL handed down a three-game suspension to Alex Ovechkin earlier this week that would bookend the League's All-Star Game, they put him in a classic lose-lose situation in regards to participation in the aforementioned game – one in which they would emerge looking like the good guys and Ovechkin, regardless of what he decided, would end up looking like a villain.

If he attended, as he was originally supposed to do, the weekend would become about his suspension and his hit; it would distract from the focus of the weekend and leave a bit of a black cloud over what is supposed to be a fun event, not just for the fans but the players, too (not to mention deprive another player who wasn't suspended from participating in his first - and perhaps only - All-Star Game). If he bowed out, it would be seen as petulant, a "take your ball and go home" move that meant he was pouting over having to take his medicine.

Ultimately he chose the latter, sending a number of pundits, fans and NHLers past and present into a tizzy. The Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont went so far as to say that Ovechkin needs to be "more respectful of the ASG" – no offense to Mr. Dupont, but of all the things we want Ovechkin to be respectful of (his teammates, opponents, GM and coach), the All-Star Game ranks pretty low on the list.

And if you ask me, the collective outrage of a vocal group of Ovechkin detractors is dripping with irony and hypocrisy.

For one thing, a lot of the arguments against Ovechkin skipping the All-Star Game focus on how the game is, first and foremost, about the poor fans who will attend or tune in expecting to see the game’s best and yet will be denied the chance to feast their eyes on Ovechkin. Never mind that if they really cared about seeing him there, they would have stuffed the ballot boxes in his favor instead of guys that the hosts…wait for it…see every night. And never mind that fans have had numerous chances (including last weekend) to see him on national TV, getting the best he has to offer including (legal) hits. Dying to see him live? Do what has been done almost ten million times over the course of Alex Ovechkin's career and buy a ticket to a game that actually matters... and at a fraction of the cost.

And to imply (as Mr. Dupont, among others, does) that Alex Ovechkin doesn’t understand his role as an ambassador for the sport – or appreciate what his job at the All-Star Game is – is to ignore what he’s done for a city rediscovering a passion for hockey, to say nothing of what he’s done in past All-Star Games and how he’s risked looking silly to put on a show. Every year he dutifully attends and becomes one of the main attractions, right down to him putting a new skills event on the map and making it unbeatable.

Yes, the All-Star Game loses a little something without one of the game’s biggest personalities being trotted out like some gap-toothed showdog. There’s no denying that his history mentioned above has made the All-Star Game that much more entertaining. But to say that it’s his duty to the League is slightly ridiculous, and is based on a couple of premises that don’t ring quite true.

One is that the rest of the representatives minus Ovechkin have the collective personality of a box of bolts; this may be true in some cases (as pro athletes go, hockey players are decidedly at the bottom of the flamboyant ladder) but there are more than enough personalities present to make up for it. Ovechkin has done more than his fair share of work being marketed as the face of the NHL over the course of his career; that injuries have left this year’s game without the usual suspects is hardly his fault, and his presence wouldn’t make up for the losses of the others.

The other premise is this idea that the NHL is marketing this weekend to anyone other than hockey fans, which doesn’t quite pass the sniff test. People who watch all-star games in any sport are likely already fans of that sport… and if they’re not, it’s doubtful that watching them in any sport, even with a flamboyant superstar at center ring, is going to change that opinion. To say nothing of the fact that said superstar attending with a suspension hanging around his neck might actually do more harm than good in that department.

Of course the biggest piece of irony here is that a lot of the criticism of Ovechkin’s move comes from one of two groups: the people whose discussion of the All-Star Game is generally limited to reasons why it’s an inane practice that no one likes, that the stars don’t want to attend and that bears little resemblance to any sort of actual hockey, and the people who thought Ovechkin was an undeserving invitee because of his slumping numbers.

Or a third group that hilariously has spent a great deal of time and energy doing both… make sense of that one, I dare you.

The reality is that he’s doing what any number of players have done leading up to this game, which is to turn down the chance to attend. For all the talk about Teemu Selanne and Nicklas Lidstrom (and the much more forgiving reception they’ve received), we actually don’t know how many players asked privately not to even be considered. Selanne and Lidstrom’s reasons for not being included were likely only made public after the uproar at two living legends being "snubbed", but there’s no way to tell how many got the right to do the same without any fanfare. Ovechkin didn’t ask not to be included, and he was going to go even if it was a surprise – even to him – that he was invited at all.

With the recent suspension, Ovechkin is simply exercising common sense as well as his right not to attend a game that the majority of the League doesn’t go to and a game that doesn’t help his team in any way (just as skipping it doesn't harm his team in any way). He has correctly identified that he would be a distraction; the weekend’s not even underway and the number of pixels (including these very ones) discussing his choice are out of control. He recognizes the ridiculousness of being told to sit out of games that matter but then participate in one that doesn’t; and the fact that the League isn’t taking further action tells us that they at least partly agree.

Could the League just make this easier on everyone and prevent suspended players from participating in the All-Star Game? Of course they could – but then they’d have to play the bad guy. And as we all know, no one plays that role better than Alex Ovechkin.