Problems still plague All-Star event

MONTREAL -- You have to love Joe Thornton. And Alex Ovechkin. And every other NHL player who gets the All-Star Game.

Thornton seemed genuinely baffled Friday when asked about players who bow out of the event -- something that came to a head this season when the NHL went to the rather extraordinary lengths of essentially suspending (with pay) Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk for the first game following this weekend's All-Star break because they blew off the event.

Thornton said he couldn't imagine a better way to spend a weekend than hanging out with family and friends in Montreal. This was his sixth trip to the All-Star Game, and he noted he had piled up just one assist. ("Must have been my linemates," he joked.)

Then there was Ovechkin, who hammed it up for the fans Saturday night during the skills competition. He's one of the league's top players and obviously didn't feel it was a great imposition to hang out in a great city for a few days, even if it was colder than cold.

And you know what? We don't really feel sorry for Lidstrom or Datsyuk, who will have to miss the Red Wings' first post-All-Star break game Tuesday against the Blue Jackets. They knew that was the deal when they decided they'd rather rest than come here.

Fair enough.

The punishment has nothing to do with whether Lidstrom has been a great ambassador for the game as a whole and a tremendous supporter of the All-Star event after playing in it 10 times. He is not only one of the finest defensemen of all time but also one of the classiest individuals ever to play the game.

But this event is fighting for its very life.

Never particularly relevant at the best of times, the NHL All-Star Game is even less so when you hold it up against the likes of the Winter Classic, which has become a showcase event for the NHL after successes in Buffalo and Chicago the past two seasons.

The All-Star weekend isn't going away, though, as much as some reporters might grumble about having to cover things such as the trick shooting event. It's an important date on the NHL calendar when it comes to corporate schmoozing. And if you'd seen the way the city of Montreal embraced the event -- the Bell Centre was packed to watch practice, along with the rest of the events -- even the skeptics among us would've had to say there's still a place for it.

But if the All-Star Game is to have its place, the league must deal with problem areas, and chief among them is the players and how they end up there.

If fans want to vote like crazy for their hometown heroes, as they did in Montreal by selecting Carey Price, Mike Komisarek, Alexei Kovalev and Andrei Markov to the starting lineup for Sunday's game, fair enough.

But let's stop rewarding the undeserving when the rest of the rosters are filled out. This notion that somehow every team has to be represented does more to damage the All-Star Game's integrity (and oh, how it pains us to put "All-Star" and "integrity" in the same sentence) than when star players make up some excuse for not showing up, which has become the norm.

We recall one year when then-Maple Leafs head coach Pat Quinn was coach of the Eastern Conference team. He discussed at length the honor of being asked to participate, then promptly let Mats Sundin and Ed Belfour stay home.

The league's strong stand this season should put an end to such shenanigans.

The fact that Sidney Crosby came into town in time for media availability and took part in various events to avoid league sanction suggests players who are either voted or selected to the game's rosters will get it in the future and think twice about pulling the chute on the event.

If the Wings lose Tuesday to Columbus in part because they don't have all their star players at their disposal, if they finish the regular season a point or two behind San Jose for the Presidents' Trophy or the Western Conference's top seed, maybe Lidstrom and Datsyuk will have wished they'd have done things differently.

If the NHL, however, hadn't been so concerned with placating every market in the league by naming an "All-Star," maybe it wouldn't have been presented with the rather embarrassing reality that no Detroit Red Wings played in Montreal, even though the team hit the break with the third-most points in the league.

It's our understanding that players such as Brian Rafalski, Marian Hossa and Henrik Zetterberg would have been interested in attending the game. All three are deserving. But when it came time to ask them whether they wanted to fill in, all had made other plans.

If the league is going to ask its players to take their selections to the All-Star rosters seriously as a way of maintaining the integrity and relevancy of the event, the NHL should do the same.

Rafalski is tied for third among all NHL defensemen with 35 points. Mike Green, the slick-skating defenseman from Washington, ranks fifth. Surely it is more important to reward those players for their strong play than by bringing in the Maple Leafs' Tomas Kaberle, who suggested to writers in Toronto there were more deserving folks even on his own team.

Keith Tkachuk ranks 85th among all forwards in scoring and is minus-12. Yet the St. Louis forward was in Montreal, presumably to help drive up the television numbers in Missouri for Sunday's game. Mike Modano ranks 104th among forwards, but the veteran Stars forward got the call from the league's hockey operations department to head to Montreal.

As one NHL GM told ESPN.com this weekend, it's not an All-Star Game, it's a representative game. But you can't have it both ways.

If you're going to hammer players who don't come, you have to invite the players who deserve to be there. If that means you end up with a bunch of Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins while the bottom-feeders are shut out for a year or two, so be it.

Want the game to be meaningful? Make the selections reflect meaningful play leading up to the All-Star break.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman always has latitude to bring in veteran players or make special selections to cover off special cases.

Just off the top of our head, we would have extended invitations to Patrik Elias, who is having a renaissance season in New Jersey (54 points, plus-14, ninth in NHL scoring); Daniel Sedin of Vancouver, who is on a point-per-game pace and is plus-11 and 15th in NHL scoring; or Mike Richards and Philadelphia teammate Simon Gagne, who rank 20th and 22nd, respectively, in scoring. Gagne is scoring at better than a point-per-game pace and provides a nice story, given his comeback from severe concussion issues.

That standard of bringing true All-Stars should extend to the young stars who make up an important part of Saturday's schedule of events. Likewise, if young players such as Steve Mason of Columbus and Nicklas Backstrom of Washington blow off the event in coming seasons, they should be held to the same rigorous standards to which the NHL is holding Datsyuk and Lidstrom.

Who knows? Maybe in the future, everyone will just get it, and we won't spend so much time every season wondering why we bother with the game at all.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.