Pittsburgh Penguins\' Evgeni Malkin, left, and James Neal talk on the bench during overtime of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. The Penguins won in a shootout 2-1, on a goal by Neal. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Dennis Wideman thought he'd been traded. Scott Hartnell worried he'd be facing a suspension.
What both men failed to consider was that their phone was ringing with an invitation to the NHL's all-star game—and they aren't the only ones heading to Ottawa this weekend that made such a mistake.
A season of surprise performances around the NHL is reflected in an all-star roster that includes 18 first-time participants for Sunday's game at Scotiabank Place.
Wideman is among the most anonymous invitees. A seven-year pro, the Washington Capitals defenceman is in the midst of a career season but got nervous when general manager George McPhee called him earlier this month to deliver what turned out to be great news.
"He's pretty even-keeled. When he called me, I was like, 'Aw man, where am I going now?'" said Wideman. "I didn't know what was going on. But in my experience, when a GM calls you, it's usually not good news."
For the second straight year, the players themselves are taking control of the all-star game.
Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara will each select teams bearing their names during a live televised draft on Thursday night. They'll also come up with the assignments for Saturday's skills competition prior to facing off against one another Sunday afternoon.
It promises to be a special few days for Alfredsson and Senators teammates Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek, who were all voted to the game by fans.
"I think we're going to be good hosts in Ottawa and it's going to be something that I'm always going to cherish," said Alfredsson. "To be able to play in front of our home fans at an all-star game—even though it's not a Stanley Cup final—it's a celebration for the game. Having four guys from Ottawa there is going to be pretty neat. I really look forward to it.
"I'm going to embrace it all and make sure I try to enjoy it as much as I can."
He won't be alone. Hartnell's first all-star invitation comes in his 11th NHL season and is recognition for the great offensive season he's put together for the Philadelphia Flyers.
The 29-year-old was named as an injury replacement earlier this week and could barely sleep after getting the news from NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan.
"I think of myself as a good hockey player, but you look at the all-star game and the names that have been there in the past, like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Steve Yzerman—or even the guys who play nowadays, like Joe Thornton—and to think of yourself part of that group is hard," Hartnell told the Philadelphia Daily News. "It almost seems a little far-fetched at times. Now I'll be there playing with them."
All but one of the league's top-15 scorers entering play Wednesday will participate in the event.
However, that group doesn't include Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, still the most recognizable hockey players on the planet. It also excludes Nicklas Lidstrom, Eric Staal and Patrick Sharp—all leading men in last year's all-star game—among others.
Ovechkin has been a staple of this event since bursting into the league but decided to cancel his ticket to Ottawa after receiving a three-game suspension earlier this week for a questionable hit. With him sitting 41st overall in league scoring, it was debatable whether he even warranted a spot.
"My heart is not there," Ovechkin told reporters. "I got suspended, so why I have to go there? I love the game, it's a great event, I love to be there but I'm suspended. ... I feel I'm not deserving to be there right now."
He was replaced Wednesday by Pittsburgh Penguins winger James Neal, who would have been a notable omission after entering the all-star break with 27 goals.
While some players questioned Ovechkin's decision to give the game a pass—Blues forward Andy McDonald called it "classless" on his Twitter account Wednesday—it ended up creating an opportunity for Neal, yet another all-star rookie.