by Paul West
Alex Ovechkin is one of the NHL’s biggest stars–not just now, but ever. He’s almost certainly the greatest sniper of his generation, and he’s the greatest player in Washington Capitals history. He’s also, for the second consecutive year, deciding to opt out of the NHL’s All-Star Game and its festivities. This has led deputy commissioner Bill Daly to express ‘concern‘ over the phenomenon of players–such as Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s also declining his spot–skipping its mid-season exhibition, which begs the question: what’s the big deal?
This isn’t like the NBA’s ‘load management’ trend, though the root causes are the same. Players aren’t skipping a meaningful, competitive game with standings implications. They’re skipping an exhibition, in which the game itself is an afterthought, and their decision to do so actually has positive implications with regard to games which really matter. Addressing the matter, Ovechkin said:
“It’s a hard decision, but I have to listen to my body. I have to get ready for the second half of the year. I have to be healthy and focus on different things.”
If aging stars like Fleury and Ovechkin don’t listen to their bodies, and the wear and tear of lengthy seasons and postseasons (both players have had careers with heavy usage during extensive postseason action) leads to injuries which cost them playing time down the stretch, the implications are much worse–for their teams, their fans, and the league–than if they opts out of a game in which players are mainly try not to hurt themselves or each other.
The NBA and faces similar issues with participation in its All-Star festivities at times, including its once highly touted dunk contest; and perhaps they should follow the example of the NFL, and host their All-Star games after their regular seasons are over. One might point to the higher percentage of both leagues which make the playoffs, hence a higher percentage of players who might opt to begin their offseasons–but the NFL addressed this matter by pushing the Pro Bowl back to right before the Super Bowl, thus clearing all but two teams for participation. Still, the NFL sometimes deals with both attendance and intensity issues in its Pro Bowl, and for understandable reasons: would you want to tear an ACL, playing an exhibition game on fried legs after losing your conference championship? Would your heart even be in it? How much does any league’s front office want its stars getting injured in games which are for exhibition purposes only?
Even with the aforementioned risks in play, All-Star games are known for the intensity picking up near the end–not just because of differences in prize money, but due to the competitive spirit which gets so many players to the pros in the first place. This is all the more reason why you can’t force a player to risk their livelihood to play against elite competition in a game that counts as much as a preseason game. Pete Rose was widely and justly criticized for derailing Ray Fosse‘s career in an exhibition game, and while Rose’s moment of psychosis is far from customary, it’s one of many reasons that league offices engage in a sort of doublethink where All-Star games are concerned: they want players to try hard enough to make it interesting, and they want them to play when nominated or voted in, but they also cringe at the idea of them getting hurt in the process.
Relatedly, baseball is actually the game in which it’s most possible (among the four leagues in question) to manage injury risk within the context of playing hard, as–though the myth of it being non-rigorous is thoroughly absurd–the decision to engage or avoid high impact with other players is mostly under players’ control. Still, by midseason a lot of MLB players face inflammation in the connective tissue they use to go from full stops to explosive bursts of action on almost fourteen dozen days a year. Accordingly, they often opt out of their midseason exhibition.
The best hedge for this dilemma is skills competitions, most famously the home run derby, three point derby and slam dunk competition; but players even opt out of these, for frequently understandable reasons. The NHL has introduced entertaining skills competitions of its own, which adds flair to All-Star Weekend and can let players participate in festivities even if they skip the actual game.
Last but not least, the truth is that despite laments over high scores and lack of defensive intensity, there’s no sure-fire way to get fans to care all that much about All-Star games. They’ll watch if their teams are heavily represented or their favorite players are involved, but lots will make other plans because the game doesn’t count and everyone knows it. Major League Baseball’s attempt to add weight to the game by giving it actual playoff implications wasn’t just laughably misguided, it opened the door for the kind of collusion and/or sandbagging which has dogged various sports at various times in history. All of this brings us back to the point of departure: what’s the big deal?
In truth, All-Star games aren’t a very big deal at all. They can be fun, they can provide moments, highlights, and memories, but in no analysis are they more important or interesting than games in the closing stretch of a regular season. Bill Daly would do well to keep this in mind, and consider the NHL’s good fortune in having Ovechkin, Fleury, and other generational talents still performing at elite levels so far into their careers.