ATLANTA - A giant billboard just outside Philips Arena is akin to the NHL's version of a milk carton.
Missing stars Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks are among the six players advertised on the NHL all-star billboard near the home rink of the Atlanta Thrashers - this year's theme as much about who isn't here for the 56th all-star classic than who actually is. In total, seven players originally on the all-star rosters begged off, some because of injury, others for personal reasons.
The league is putting on a brave face, and both the skills competition Saturday night and the all-star game Sunday evening are sold out, but the cast of no-shows is a growing concern.
"Injuries are a fact of life in our game and there is nothing that can be done about that," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told The Canadian Press on Friday. "While we're sympathetic to other personal issues, it's something that we need to focus on with the players' association. Certainly, the players who are here are honoured and delighted."
Crosby was dying to be here to make amends for last year when he was kept off the scoresheet in his first-ever all-star game. But a high ankle sprain knocked him out six to eight weeks. Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators (shoulder), Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings (back), Sergei Zubov of the Dallas Stars (foot) and Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche (appendix) also pulled out because of injury while Luongo and Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils pulled out for personal reasons.
Other stars, sources indicate, also hinted to the league they weren't interested in coming before the league bothered to name them.
The league and the NHL Players' Association must reverse a growing trend of players skipping the event.
"(NHLPA executive director) Paul Kelly thinks it's very important as well, and it's something we're going to talk about as we go forward," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Friday.
"The players already have a very long season and some players have committed themselves to NHL functions and events throughout their entire careers and need a break."
There still are plenty of big-name players left and six of them hope to put on a big show Saturday night in the skills competition with a newly created shootout event officially dubbed the Breakaway Challenge. Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks, Pavel Datsyuk of the Wings, Marian Gaborik of the Minnesota Wild, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Ilya Kovalchuk of the hometown Thrashers and Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning will reach into their bag of tricks to impress a panel of judges in the search for a perfect 10 - much like the NBA's slam dunk contest.
The judges are former Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby, former Atlanta Hawks basketball star Dominique Wilkins, Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch and hockey broadcaster Bill Clement.
Other new events Saturday include the YoungStars 3-on-3 (as opposed to the full YoungStars Game of years past), an obstacle course relay and a different format for the fastest skater.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, fresh off a career-high seven points Thursday night in Tampa, isn't disappointed he wasn't chosen for the new judged shootout event.
"The game itself is the most fun," Alfredsson said Friday. "Skills competition I can't say that I enjoy too much because I'm not really good at anything. The game is the most fun."
Before the skills event Saturday comes another Board of Governors meeting in the morning. Owners last met in Pebble Beach, Calif., in late November. This meeting won't cover as much ground but will touch on a few topics:
-owners will talk about the merits of an 84-game schedule, an idea Kelly and the NHLPA is pushing for.
"We'll update the board on that possibility," said Daly. "I don't think we'll take any action ... Just get a sense of it. We're too far down the road to move to 84 (next season)."
-an update on where talks stand with the IIHF regarding a new player transfer agreement.
-a look at what options exist for possible future outdoor games.
-an update on the sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which still isn't completed yet.
The all-star weekend, meanwhile, is as much a giant party of people in and around hockey, which always invites trades rumours with the deadline just over four weeks away. Thrashers GM and head coach Don Waddell, added to the Eastern Conference coaching staff by head coach John Paddock of the Senators on Friday, was peppered with questions related to Atlanta winger Marian Hossa. The all-star is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1 and since contract talks haven't produced the desired breakthrough, Waddell said Friday the time may soon come to fish or cut bait.
"I'm not frustrated, but it's something that's got to get moving quicker than it is," said Waddell. "This thing has to move to the next stage. We're either at a point now where we either get more serious about a contract or we start to look at other options."