Yesterday, hockey fans were treated to one of the sappiest exhibitions of hero worship it has ever been my experience to witness. One could excuse it if it was the case of a young player looking to one of his NHL heroes as an example for his own play, or even a long-time fan who finally gets to meet his favorite player that he’s watched for years.
But no, this was a fawning of the most inexcusable kind – media covering a game, openly cheering the routine and exaggerating the mundane in a single player’s efforts. And in my mind, it reflects a problem the NHL is creating for itself in what looks for all the world to be blissful ignorance.
Watching and listening to the NBC coverage of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers yesterday, I had to wonder if even Sidney Crosby would have been embarrassed at the praise being spread on him thickly like too-sweet an icing on a birthday cake. Pierre McGuire was especially offensive, but he wasn’t alone. Let me point out, I’m a fan of the Washington Capitals, so the thought of rooting for or even acknowledging the talent of a Penguin comes hard. There are too many bitter playoff memories to sift through. I’m mindful that what follows could be construed as “Crosby-bashing.” It is not meant to be. I happen to like Crosby’s play. I like the edge and determination he brings to his effort; he doesn’t just fall back on his supreme skill, something it would be tempting for a player of his talent to do.
But the increasing oneness with which Crosby and the league are portrayed – that this, as McGuire put it with respect to a goal scored by Mark Recchi yesterday, is “all about Sidney Crosby” – poses what in my mind is a potential problem for the league.
In no other professional team sport in North America have the league in question and their broadcast partners put their eggs into one basket in the manner the NHL and its partners seem to be in the case of Crosby. Baseball sells the timelessness of the game, its rivalries, and its records. Football sells the logos of its respective teams, regardless of which player s might wear them, and the “event” nature of each game. Basketball, which no longer has the icons of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan manning the court, seems to have struggled to find a consistent theme.
It is basketball provides possibly the most instructive example of the problem. The NBA was in a state of disrepair in the 1970’s, suffering – fairly or not – an image of a drug-addled league of limited appeal. It was, for lack of a better term, no more than a “niche” sport. Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league in 1979 and rescued the league from decline. They were succeeded by Michael Jordan, whose unique gifts were just what the NBA needed to achieve new heights. The talents of Commissioner David Stern can’t be underestimated here, either, but the point is that the NBA was able to put a face on its product (or in this case, “faces”).
But the matter isn’t quite that simple, and this is what I think is the problem facing the NHL and the matter of Sidney Crosby. Johnson, Bird, and Jordan were three of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. They largely defined the league for two decades. But despite their respective talents, the quality they had in common was that they won. Had their teams not won 14 titles over a period of 17 seasons in which at least one of them played, none would be revered to the extent they are today, and the league likely never would have returned to the status it enjoys today.
And that is where Mr. Crosby enters. At the moment, to paraphrase McGuire, “it’s all about Sidney Crosby.” Quite a burden for a 19-year old to bear. But he’s been training for it since he was in his early teens, much as Wayne Gretzky did in his early years.
This is different. When Gretzky entered the league, it was a “major” league in name only, and it was before the advent of free agency, multi-million dollar player contracts, billion-dollar network contracts, and the Internet. The manner in which the league, its media partners, and its marketing strategy have invested in the product named “Crosby” has the effect of putting all of their respective eggs into one basket.
It’s quite a gamble, because as we’ve noted, Johnson, Bird and Jordan won . . . often. And, they had help. Michael Jordan never won an NBA championship without Scottie Pippen at his side. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish and others. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Hockey is even less-forgiving to the “star” culture than basketball. Wayne Gretzky had Mark Messier and Jari Kurri, among others, and never won a Cup after leaving Edmonton. Mario Lemieux had Ron Francis, Kevin Stevens, and a young Jaromir Jagr (Jagr, it should be noted, didn’t have that support structure as he matured, and he has no Cups since those early Penguin days). And, hockey puts a premium on the contributions of all players up and down the bench – more so than perhaps any other major team sport.
The Crosby Strategy works only if Crosby wins. But hockey isn’t a “star-centric” sport any more than the other major team sports are or, in this instance, as much as the NHL might want it to be. It is a sport that needs contributions from the unsung, from the player who will put himself in harm’s way in front of the net to be there when the opportunity presents itself to bang home a goal from close range, from the player who will sacrifice himself to get in the way of a 100-mile-an-hour slap shot, from the player who will take a hit for the team to make a play. These are the little plays that make hockey what it is, the kinds that contribute as much to winning as a guy sliding on his knees to deflect the puck into the net and be the subject of highlight clips all over North America.
The NHL has a lot of marketing capital invested in Sidney Crosby. But being supremely skilled isn’t enough. Crosby had that highlight clip goal against Tampa Bay last week when he slid on his knees to convert a pass from Mark Recchi.
The Penguins lost the game. Is there a moral in that?