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The face of the NHL
Authors Note: This is an article I wrote two years ago about Sidney Crosby and how he became the face of the NHL. It was originally posted on the NHL's fansite but since the site has undergone so many changes I decided to take it down, rework it and re-post it here so that others could read it. It is my hope that people read it and think about the how and why behind the events I have discussed.
Face of the NHL
You may ask yourself how did we get here. This is not my wife. This is not my life...
In the words of the Talking Heads this kind of thing happens once in a lifetime. It is the perfect storm if you will, a hundred year flood, or even the Lochness Monster. How did we come to this point?
Our story really begins way back in 1994 and for alot of current fans that may seem like a long time ago but for us old-timers it is just yesterday. Had we known then that we were witnessing a changing of the guard; I don't think anyone would have believed it. Then the lock-out came and just like that our hockey world was in shambles. Fortunately the season was salvaged but the writing was on the wall. Things were changing and like it or not the league too was evolving. As we went forward several things began to be clear.
The ageless ones seem not so ageless. As the 90's began to grow to a close both Gretzky and Lemieux seemed more and more fragile. Injuries mounted for Mario and his desperate attempts to bring the cup back to Pittsburgh were thwarted by his failing body and an ownership that struggled to stay out of bankruptcy court. Gretzky moved from contender to contender trying to capture lightening in a jar and perhaps have one final page in the history book. Both would fail miserably.
Passing the torch In this time, the waning of Superstars and the rising of young stars it was naturally assumed someone would step to the forefront to lead the NHL into the new millennium. It is perhaps the games greatest tragedy that the promise of so many bright stars failed to be realized. To be sure there were talented players yet not one distanced himself as Orr, Howe, Richard, Gretzky or Lemieux had done. Yzerman quietly led his team to back to back cups. Sakic as well filled the void of solid yet unassuming Captains to lead their team to cup wins. Jagr and Forsberg provided highlight goals. Mike Madono seemed lost in the football crazed media fest of Dallas. Broduer established himself as the next Roy and perhaps a better one. Lindros, well Lindros was somewhat picked to carry the torch and yet again promise unfulfilled. There were solid players just not the superstars, the ambassadors that transcended the game.
The game changes: The Devils and the Red Wings both had a hand in causing a shift in hockey. The Devils made the trap a household name and the Red Wings perfected the Left-wing lock. Defensive hockey was on the rise and the run and gun style that had dominated the league for years was changed to a tight, close checking game. This further hammered home that older stars would have to change to compete, some could, some could not.
Teams suffer: There were alot of good solid games during the period of post lockout hockey between the years of 94/95 and 2000 yet in those times the good teams remained solid as other teams faltered miserably. I watched some solid Penguins teams but yet the star studded roster of yester years was gone. Lost were Jagr and Francis, Lemieux tried numerous comebacks only to retire again. Names like Nedved, Kovalev, Naslund, Straka came and went and we were left with the young faces of Aubin, Malone, Jackman. For a brief time Ziggy Palfey made an attempt to resurrect the failing Pens and yet that too fell beneath the wheels of the NHL, perhaps a sign of the doom to come. Teams would be contenders one year and then the next they would have to slash their payroll in order to remain above water. Fans were angry, not just hockey fans but sports fans in general and the bubbling undercurrent was not something you wanted to see. The league had tried to expand but the fan base wasn't following. Unto this sea of unrest riding upon his pale horse came Gary Bettmen.
2004 lockout ends all hope of hockey season
I will not spend time talking about the second lockout in less than 15 years in the NHL except to say that the squaring off of the two supposed superpowers: Bettmen fronting for the League and Goodenow the Players union would lead us to this point, the causes for the Crosby Effect.
Post lockout a lottery system was used to determine the draft order for the 2005 entry draft and the most prized player that year was to be Sidney Crosby. Crosby had shown himself to be a gifted player and quiet probably the heir apparent to the vacant title of Ambassador of the game. His numbers speak for themselves and I will not bore you with restating of the obvious. Despite what anyone will tell you every team in the leagued wanted him and rightfully so. Here was a young man who was both delightful and well spoken and attractive to the eye. a model hockey player if ever there was one and someone the Canadian people could rally behind as they had Richard, Gretzky, and Lemieux. In short he was an advertisers dream. So as the lottery began the powers that be made the decision that would change the face of the league for years to come.
The face of the NHL
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the lottery and with a team desperate for talented players and a way to keep the team in Pittsburgh they chose Crosby with the first pick. The impact was immediate, Owner/player Mario Lemieux once again returned from retirement to try once more to capture that fleeting third cup, yet once again his failing body could not match his desire. The Pens even with Crosby finished last and with it more number one picks. In all they had assembled an all-star roster and yet the controversy of the face of the NHL surrounds the team.
In not wanting another vacuum in the pecking order of NHL superstars the league thrust this young man upon the world. The resulting marketing blitz brought new blood into the rank and file of fans everywhere. Yet this overstepping of the natural order of things, this choosing a standard bearer instead of letting his play make his name known has caused many both loyal NHL supporters and new fans alike to begin to question things. The arrival of talented Alex Ovechkin has also caused a tarnish on the league's poster boy and as many fan site that sprung up seemingly overnight for Crosby there were an equal number of fan hate sites for him as well. The league, being the league and Bettmen knowing full well what benefits could be reaped in such controversy continued to push Crosby and then gave us the Ovechkin/Crosby war, as if we need help. The league's "Next One" campaign has probably cost it as many fans as it has gained since the hard core fans(the ones who stay through thick and thin) are disgusted and the younger crowd fickle as they are turn from Crosby and to whatever new flavor of ice cream the league offers up Perhaps Toews or Kane, maybe Stamkos.
Working the System that created him: By this point, and please try to remember I love that the guy plays for the Pens, Crosby has been damaged by the system. The business of being a professional athlete is just that, a business. Many hockey players don't finish school before they leave for the AHL, QJML, NHL or KHL. They are taught get what you can because there is no telling how long you are going to be in the league. So as any smart businessman will tell you it is all about marketing. Crosby has a solid staff on the end and perhaps that is why we see so much about him, his people are doing their jobs. Add to this the League marketing and the Face of the NHL is everywhere. As much as it uses him he uses it. The crybaby comments and the diving and flopping stories can all be laid at the leagues feet. He knows it is in the league’s best interest now to keep him in the game and so he works it. Is it honorable or the way the game is suppose to be played? No but it is the sad reality. I would like to think that other players would be above it but if Mike Richards, Alex Ovechkin, Marian Hossa were in a similar situation would they act different? I don't know and I hope we never have to find out. On player being ruined by the machine is enough.
How did we get here? Greed, plain and simple, the perfect storm of events. Lockouts cause fans base to slip. No solid TV deal means no revenue similar to the NFL so the only money is in ticket sales. Owners and league decide they need to market the game to a younger and newer audience. Enter a fresh faced kid from Canada, the perfect poster boy. The rest is history. How will the tale end? Like all fairytale with happily ever after or with more unfulfilled promises. Well that is up to you and me I guess, the greatest force for change is the fans.
Thanks for reading this it is long and well a bit off point but yet I think it needed to be said