Marketing the NHL is more important than one Red Wings game

"Poor Sidney Crosby - he goes on a Western (Canada) swing, and he's inundated with requests for interviews. It has to affect his ability and energy level, and I understand that. But we need to get our guys, their faces, their images, out there in the United States in ways we haven't done so previously." -- NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly to The Hockey News, Jan. 2008.

I have to admit that seeing the All-Star Weekend experience first-hand brainwashed me slightly modulated my feelings about the quasi-suspensions of Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings for no-showing.

There's a difference between forcing guys to play while injured, which is absurd, and requiring their attendance at a major media event. Paul Kelly knew the importance of this earlier this month; maybe not so much now.

There were fans in Montreal from all over the world, and they spent a ton of money for the chance to experience the all-star game. There was media there from all over the world, and their companies spent a ton of money sending them to Montreal for interviews, columns and stories about the NHL's elite talents. There was money from sponsors, advertisers and the League itself promoting the players that were supposed to be there; that giant hotel lobby banner of Lidstrom didn't make itself. 

It's all about the benjamins, baby, and the all-star game is one of the League's signature marketing moments. Bettman made that clear last February: unless you're incapacitated, you're showing up to glad-hand the millionaires and the CEOs and kiss some babies at the all-star game and its various supplementary functions. And if you don't, there are going to be consequences. So the rule didn't exactly "magically" appear.

Yet Red Wings fans waste their breath and tire out their fingers with rants of indignation, treating this incident as part of some grand conspiracy filled with anti-octopus twirling, Tomas Holmstrom's crease-crashing and all-star voter fraud. They do this even when the truth is so cut-and-dry: Datsyuk, Lidstrom and the Red Wings had an obligation to fill as League marketing partners; the players and their team chose not to fill it; and the Columbus Blue Jackets will face a shorthanded squad tomorrow night because of that decision.

Were the Red Wings made an example of by the NHL? Of course, and the decision to hold the players out of their next regular season game was likely also a poke at Kelly and the NHLPA to see if the League can take an inch or a mile in these kinds of situations.

But to say that Bettman and the NHL have "damaged the integrity of the game by doing something that could cost the Wings in the standings," as Jeff Blair did in the Globe & Mail? Please. Either Kelly's NHLPA is a willing partner in growing the game or they're not. Either Ken Holland and the League's general managers want to mandate participation in all-star festivities, or they want to appeal punishments that result in their abandonment.

No one was asking for Datsyuk to take part in a skills competition, or Lidstrom to skate the morning practice. All they had to do was show up and promote the game, like Sidney Crosby and every "healthy" player did. Treating that responsibility as an option rather than an obligatory part of the job is far more damaging to the game's integrity than two points won or lost for the Red Wings. It's the kind of passive commitment that has, for years, hindered the League's marketing aims.

As Brian Campbell said to me the other day: You have to hold the teams as accountable as the players when it comes to decisions to hold them back from promoting the game. That goes for something as significant as Lidstrom no-showing in Montreal to something as mundane as teams denying interview requests. Like Michael Farber of SI noted, Brian Rafalski, Marian Hossa and Henrik Zetterberg didn't exactly stand up to be counted after getting snubbed by the League. The Red Wings tested the bull and got the horns.

Try telling that to The Chief from Abel To Yzerman, who believes Detroit has every right to put its agenda ahead of the League's:

Here's what's been suggested and it's not a bad idea. Forfeit the frigging game. Forfeit it because it's unnecessarily unsafe.  This isn't a case of two forwards getting hurt in the midst of a game.  It's a situation where the league knowingly placed ten other skaters at jeopardy by keeping two players out of the lineup without any possibility of replacement.  Intent to injure.  Hell.  The Wings could legitimately sue the league.

Or how about this. This was suggested too.  Dress Lidstrom. Dress Datsyuk.  Or call up Leino and Haydar or Home Keys or Kindl. Call 'em up, dress 'em and skate them tomorrow night.  Even if it takes us over Gary's Cap.

In other words, tell Gary, the Wing haters, the elitist Canadien media to take this suspension and shove it right up their asses...if it's not too much trouble. And if whatever the Wings decide to do cost them two points, or a few million in fines, or their repuation in the eyes of the hypocritical league office?  Too bad.

Sure. Whatever. Fight the power. I just don't see the point in making this out to be a great injustice -- unless it was medically impossible for Lidstrom to travel with tendonitis in his right elbow, or to put his left arm around a fan to take a photograph in Montreal.

Was the NHL without fault here? Hell no. There is a double-standard at play when a guy like Steve Mason of the Blue Jackets can skirt his spokes-model duties because of injury without recourse, simply because he's in the skills competition instead of the main event. The notion that the Red Wings won't be able to replace these players because they're not officially suspended, as The Chief pointed out, is almost like punishment on top of punishment. And Lidstrom and Datsyuk aren't exactly Sean Avery; you could argue that the suspensions are harsh, and I'd listen.

But it still doesn't excuse their actions.

Let's revisit Paul Kelly's words from earlier this month: "We need to get our guys, their faces, their images, out there in the United States in ways we haven't done so previously."

Previously, players could duck out of their all-star game responsibilities for a myriad of reasons that didn't involve a wheelchair, a hospital bed or post-concussion syndrome. As any of those players will likely tell you in the wake of these suspensions: not any more.

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