January 27, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Ruling is latest slap to Wings

Lidstrom and Datsyuk suspensions are silly

DETROIT -- It's not the biggest deal, it's not horribly damaging to the Red Wings and it won't affect the reputations of two of their premier players. But come on, this is ridiculous.

Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk won't play tonight when the Wings open the second half of the season in Columbus. Both are suspended, although they're not really suspended because they're getting paid. Only in Gary Bettman's wacky NHL can two of the best players on one of the best teams get punished for doing what seems right, for trying to heal nagging injuries instead of participating in All-Star weekend.

Whatever. The Wings should take this double-slap as a bizarre contradiction -- a sign of disrespect from the league, as well as an odd nod of respect because the NHL apparently was embarrassed to hold its showcase without any players from the reigning Stanley Cup champions.

Mike Babcock was there as an assistant coach, but then, he doesn't have tendinitis in his right elbow, as Lidstrom does.

Lidstrom was typically understated Monday after practice, knowing he'd just received the first suspension of his 17-year career. This is a guy who has played in 10 All-Star Games and won six Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cups, as decorated and respected as any player in NHL history. And he was used -- along with Datsyuk, who had a hip injury -- as an example by the league of its new crackdown?

What a farce. Lidstrom almost never gets angry, but he came close on this one.

He said he wasn't called by the league and didn't even know until late Friday that showing up in Montreal for off-ice activities, as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby did, would have been sufficient. He said he probably would have opted to rest anyway.

Was he mad?

"A little bit," said Lidstrom, who stayed home, got treatment, and didn't watch the game. "It's a little bit disappointing, especially when you've been there a lot of times.

"We knew the consequences, but I decided what was best for the team and myself was to try and heal up here. We're not getting breaks this long until the end of the season, so this was pretty much the only chance to see if this problem would go away."

Wings vs. the world

If the NHL truly needed all its shiniest stars in the All-Star Game, the league wouldn't have a goofy Internet voting system that awarded starting spots to four Canadiens players and three Blackhawks. Of all the issues the NHL faces, getting the Wings to help spotlight a meaningless exhibition should be way down the list.

If the Wings are so vital, why have they been relegated all these years to the Western Conference, so some of their biggest playoff games end at 1 a.m.? Why would the league have such an unbalanced schedule that great draws Toronto, Montreal, the Rangers and the Penguins rarely make visits to Joe Louis Arena?

Some in the Wings dressing room took this as another anti-Wings stance by the league. Whether that's real or imagined, I like that the Wings believe it's real, creating a chip the great teams must have.

"In the salary-cap era, the league is built for different teams to win every year, so it wouldn't be good if we won again, would it?" goalie Chris Osgood said. "You see a lot of commercials with us in it? Most of it is Pittsburgh scoring on us (in the Finals) and we're the team that won. I think we're the New York Yankees of the NHL. People dislike us. We have our fans, but there probably are a lot of people that love to see us lose and love to see us get guys suspended. We look at that as a nice challenge."

I'm sure animosities persist around the NHL from the Wings' free-spending days. Mike Ilitch, GM Ken Holland and the rest of the organization never hide their passion for winning, at any cost. It's a ruthlessness sometimes viewed as arrogance, and if this was a chance for Bettman and the league to make a point, well, the Wings use slights wherever they see them.

Classy players pay price

So let the conspiracies roll. It is strange the edict -- agreed upon last year by general managers but never put in writing -- was designed to force marquee players to participate, yet now will deny the poor fans in beautiful Ohio of watching Lidstrom and Datsyuk tonight.

Datsyuk, who missed most of the third period against Phoenix last Tuesday because of a hip injury, took it in stride.

"I don't agree with the decision," Datsyuk said. "I wanted to help my team. But it is what it is."

It's not a gigantic controversy but it's the principle, really. I understand the NHL's reasoning, and so do the players. The truth is, because they're injured -- Lidstrom has taken several cortisone shots this season -- more rest shouldn't hurt. But what if the Wings lose tonight and eventually finish two points shy of home-ice advantage?

It's too bad the first players punished this way are two of the classiest around. All-Star games have become a joke anyway, marketing tools that defy what professional leagues stand for -- competitiveness. There's no competition in All-Star games, not in the East's 12-11 victory Sunday, not in most sports. If the NHL All-Star Game was so important, there would have been one in Detroit more recently than 1980, right?

Babcock supported his players but didn't want to belabor the issue Monday, and neither did others. As everyone knows, as Lidstrom made clear, the Wings are much more interested in a competitive little event in May and June.

You can reach Bob Wojnowski at bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

More Bob Wojnowski