Fear Not, Canada — The NHL Still Loves You

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is always the focal point of any fan discontent with the game of hockey. American TV contract? Bettman blew it. CBA loopholes? Botched by ol' Gary. Sidney Crosby overexposure? The Commish loves him!

But Bettman is probably criticized most for leading the NHL's expansion into the Sunbelt and turning his back on small market Canada. With the All Star Game roster announced Monday, Bettman could take pride in one of the league's Southern success stories.

Is Raleigh a perfect market? No, it — like most small market pro sports cities — is reliant on the team’s success to consistently draw respectable attendance numbers. But the Carolina Hurricanes have evolved from a homeless team (the pre-RBC Center Greensboro days when many fans looked a lot like a tarp) to a Stanley Cup winner whose fans are known for not only their college-esque tailgaiting, but also their hospitality to (most — sorry Buffalo) visiting fans.

That doesn't mean there aren't questions about other Sunbelt teams that haven't fared as well, such as Florida and Phoenix, or failing markets like Long Island, where the team's once-proud tradition has been tarnished by enthusiastic-but-foolhardy ownership and a local government that refuses to assist in upgrading the aging facilities.

But for those who think Bettman and the powers that be in the NHL’s corporate offices are so pro-U.S.A. that hockey's birthplace is being ignored, I present to you one name: Ales Hemsky.

Let's start things off by saying that this isn't an attack on Hemsky, one of the game's under-appreciated playmakers. But Hemsky’s inclusion in the midseason classic reeks of Canadian compromise. 

Hemsky, you see, plays for the Edmonton Oilers, one of the NHL’s six north-of-the-border teams. And if you go by the numbers — even when considering players who supposedly asked out of attending the All Star Game — there's only one conclusion you can make as to why the 27-year-old winger was invited to Raleigh for Jan. 29-30 events: Edmonton needed to have a representative in the All Star Game.

Hold up, you say? Doesn't every team get representation? Why yes, they do. Even Ottawa is sending someone, even if he is shocked at his inclusion. But the league also deemed that even rookie participation in the day-before-the-actual-game SuperSkills competition was enough to fulfill the "every team is represented" criteria.

The rookie rep clause was good enough four teams — and curiously enough three of them are mentioned above as struggling markets. The Islanders (Michael Grabner), Panthers (Evgeny Dadonov) and Coyotes (Oliver Ekman-Larsson) will not have a player in Sunday’s All Star Game. Throw in Buffalo (Tyler Ennis) — an TV market success story who is loved by the league when they're good, mostly ignored when they're not — and those four cities will have to settle for seeing their rookies play Saturday night.

Edmonton? The league’s second worst team will have three players in Raleigh the end of January. Deserving rookies Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle will participate in the SuperSkills, while Hemsky — the guy who ranks 123rd in the NHL scoring and, for those who say he ranks that low because he was hurt, tied for 39th in points per game — will join them Saturday and play in the All Star Game.

So why was Edmonton deemed worthy of a third player when they had two rookies already in the fold? Hemsky doesn't seem to know, seeing that he told the Edmonton Journal, "I don’t know how I got there, but I am happy to experience it for the first time."

Is it their one-time status as a historical dynasty? The Isles would say no.

Was Hemsky the best player left given that many (ahem, Detroit) asked to sit out the weekend? Daniel Briere, whose team sits atop the Eastern Conference standings and will be represented by just one player (Claude Giroux) and their coach (Peter Laviolette), is in the league top-25 in scoring, and given that he was talking All Star Game captain voting the other day and giving reasons why he thinks he was snubbed Tuesday, it's safe to say he was not among those who wished to be bypassed. Wouldn't it be nice to see former first overall pick and rising star John Tavares represent the Islanders, or long-time captain Shane Doan on the ice for Phoenix, rather than Hemsky? I guess not.

Nope, there's only one logical conclusion: The NHL created their roster with two sets of rules. Every team would be represented, but if you're a Canadian franchise you'll be represented in Sunday's All Star Game.

Dear Phoenix, Long Island, Buffalo and Sunrise: enjoy Saturday.

Dear Canada: Don't fret about those Sunbelt teams. We still love you.

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