ATLANTA - Nicklas Lidstrom's 10th All-Star appearance brought out a smile that belied what has become routine for the topflight Detroit defenseman.
Joe Thornton is back for his fifth, and seemed miffed that anyone would pass up the chance to show off their talent in the ultimate hockey exhibition.
Sidney Crosby and Lidstrom's Red Wings teammate Henrik Zetterberg were in line to start tonight in the NHL All-Star game, but injuries made that impossible. The elected goalies: New Jersey's Martin Brodeur for the Eastern Conference, and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo out West turned down invitations due to family commitments.
A four-day break in the hectic 82-game schedule is a luxury that comes about just once a season, and the chance to spend it away from the rink is sometimes too much to give up.
The skills competition highlighted Saturday's portion of the weekend, leading up to the game today - telecast on Versus for the second straight year.
'I don't really think it's too big of a problem,' Thornton, a San Jose Sharks forward, said of the absences. 'Most of the All-Stars are here and we enjoy the weekend. If there are a couple of guys who don't want to enjoy the weekend, it's purely up to them.'
In addition to the four starters voted in by fans who didn't make it to Atlanta, four others also pulled out after the full rosters were announced.
'It's still fun going to the weekend,' said the 37-year-old Lidstrom, a five-time Norris Trophy winner. 'I've got my two little kids here. They've had a chance to meet some of the newer, younger players coming into the league. So I still enjoy coming to these games.'
Crosby was missed the most Saturday when the teams held rocking early morning practices on the All-Star ice in front of thousands of enthusiastic children. But judging from the cheers, squeals, and deafening roars, the performance by the Jonas Brothers more than made up for it.
No one faulted the Pittsburgh Penguins captain from being absent as his high ankle sprain is expected to keep him out for much longer than this weekend and for many more important games.
Yet, the term 'face of the league' followed his name in most every discussion about the 20-year-old phenom.
'For better or for worse, when you play an All-Star game in the middle of a season in a sport where injuries are a fact of life, this is going to happen,' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. 'I am sure Sidney misses being here as much as we miss him being here.'
Still, the show must go on.
Whether many people will watch is still in question. Crosby was a drawing card that no longer exists.
'I don't think it'll impact the ratings,' Bettman said. 'I think All-Star games are entitled to be fun and entertaining and an opportunity to see a cross-section of our stars. This game ... is not something that shouldn't be determined on the basis of one player's presence or not.'
Washington's Alex Ovechkin is back for his second All-Star game in three NHL seasons. It sometimes gets lost in the shuffle that he beat out Crosby for rookie of the year honors in 2006. He is now third in the league with 65 points - two more than Crosby, the defending scoring champion and MVP.
Ovechkin will keep his eyes open today to make sure he doesn't get run over by hard-hitting Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf, who won't get a chance to drill him in a regular-season game until March.
At the same time he will try to pull out some secret moves that he refused to describe in advance.
'It's an All-Star game. It has to be fun,' Ovechkin said. 'Players can show what they can do without the hitting and some of the physical game. We can play together, have fun, and make some good moves and good shots.'
If history is any indication, there will be plenty of those and not so many sparkling saves.
Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders will start in goal for the Eastern Conference, and his former teammate Chris Osgood - now of Detroit - got the nod from West coach Mike Babcock, also of the Red Wings.
DiPietro will be followed after the first period by Boston's Tim Thomas, a fill-in for Brodeur, and Tomas Vokoun of the Florida Panthers. Manny Legace of St. Louis and San Jose's Evegni Nabokov will man the nets for the West, last year's 12-9 winner in Dallas.
The average score for the past five games was 9-7.
'The whole idea is just having fun and enjoying ourselves,' Senators defenseman Zdeno Chara said. 'You want to be competitive and have a good game but I don't think anybody wants to hurt anybody.'
SideBar: All-star game
· What: NHL All-Star Game
· When: Today, 6 p.m.
· Where: Philips Arena, Atlanta
· TV: Versus