June 11, 2008

Everybody Hates the Kid: Crosby the Pariah

Not only did the Stanley Cup finals offer a chance for Sidney Crosby to truly leave his mark on the game, but it gave all his detractors the chance to really whale in the face of “Crosby Mania” and to let “The Kid” feel the full force of the NHL’s superstar marketing backlash.

When Wayne Gretzky came to eminence it had been as if God himself had fated it for Canada. From the tender age of 10, national Canadian media had begun to track the most prominent of all hockeying talents after scoring 378 goals and 120 assists in just 85 games for his pee wee team, the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers. From then on it was just a case of if the kid could make it through the pitfalls; the third overall selection in the OMJHL midget draft, the escapades of an under 20 in the World Hockey Association and the game of cards proposal that saw a private jet wing an 18 year old into Edmonton. To prove his critics wrong and become a star in the big boys league in front of Canada, the NHL and the rest of the world.

In his first year he won the Hart, tied the scoring lead with fewer goals and by rights should have won the Calder but was ineligible due to his time in the WHA. When he finally broke the 200 point barrier in 1982, Gretzky was just 21 and had come to epitomize the game and by all accounts save it.

The NHL was small time in the late 70’s barely able to get a foothold in America with falling attendances and struggling TV contracts. A backwards entity, The league couldn’t market the best of players and iconic figures were few and far between; Trottier, Lafleur and Dionne were the standouts, Bobby Orr’s career had all but come to an end by 1975 and Phil Esposito was getting the wrong side of thirty five. Whilst a Canadian audience was all but assured, the league desperately needed a figurehead, a star and an ambassador, to make the game viable across all North America and secure its future; the fact Gretzky’s immergence came at just about the same time as “Miracle on Ice” didn’t hurt either.
To say Gretzky saved the NHL would be trite, but his influence on the game pushed hockey from the brink of obscurity back into the major four professional sports. His multi-national-migrant appeal, his stats and his skill made him popular outside of Canada and renewed the sport of ice hockey worldwide. For a nation like Canada, whose own national institutions, for many, include the sport of hockey, to see the game once again flourishing, if not more so than ever before, was a boon and the subsequent proliferation of books and movies that sprung up around the 80’s and 90’s were a testament to the newfound popularity of the game. To expand upon the legacy and importance of Gretzky, his trade to Los Angeles was the catalyst for many, if not all, of the sunbelt expansion.

However the descent into lockout was a worrying period of stagnation for the NHL, where rule changes and a lack of personalities were again threatening the much expanded leagues revenues and attraction. With Gretzky retiring in 1999 and Lemieux’s much vaunted return blighted by injury, it fell on a new crop led by the likes of Eric Lindros to reinvigorate the league, but try as they might, there were no descent young superstars that could fill that fresh faced void and combination of charisma and world beating talent the league and Canada so desperately wanted.
Enter stage right Sidney Crosby a young Canadian with good looks and glittering junior career in tow. A first overall draftee in the QMJHL, in many regards Crosby’s junior numbers were even more impressive than Gretzky’s and the Canadian media weren’t slow in building the hype with the youngster appearing on Hockey Night in Canada at just 14. Gretzky himself heaped praise on the Nova Scotian. When asked if anybody could break his records, The Great One replied he believed Crosby could.

Unlike Gretzky who entered through the WHA backdoor in almost quaint obscurity to his pee wee fame, Crosby’s ascent into the league was supported by the elaboration of the modern draft and all the multi media that supported and promoted “The Kid” through the weeks leading up to and after the event. Crosby was certainly of a different hockey age and we were all made sure we were aware of him, what perhaps surprised many, was like Gretzky, he defied the odds and secured the Hart trophy in his first season becoming the youngest ever player to record 100 points in a season then added an Art Ross the season after, the first teenage scoring leader since “The Great One”. It seemed as if maybe prophecies could be fulfilled.

Regardless of his successes, Crosby’s play was different and peppered with the positive and negative sides of contemporary hockey. A ripple was passing through the NHL’s fan base of which true superstars rarely have to face, “Crosby Mania” was very much a Penguins and Nova Scotian delight, “The Kid” was not liked when he headed off home turf. First came the “sell-out” Reebok adverts before his first full season then the teenage alternate captaincy debacle that registered outcry from many including hockey god Don Cherry. More noted came the diving and chirping which could also be leveled to a younger Gretzky, whilst in recent times fans of any team other than Pittsburgh have been quick to call out Crosby’s unphysical presence and ice position around the net, leading many to brand the NHL as protectorate over its prodigal son’s “wuss hockey”.
Clamoring to his defense, people refer to his tremendous skill and youth, his excellent leadership for somebody so young and the recent success of a franchise, under Crosby, that at one point looked dead in the water. What is undeniably clear is the pastures under which the grass grew green for Gretzky have become a hardened rocky path for any contenders to his crown. In this mass-media-age Crosby is fair game and locked in the sights of many a hockey commentator; which is just about anybody with a blog or a social networking page.

Off course other factors haven’t helped, the expectation with which Crosby entered the league under the questionable draft lottery, and the subsequent mantle of “media darling” have made him instantly dislikeable to the average fan-bystander, whilst the arrival of Alex Ovechkin the season before Crosby has split opinion down a bitterly divided line. Many look at the all-hands-to-the-pump back checking and physical playing ethos of the Russian as the true pinnacle of the sport when married with his stick handling finesse and cannon shot. It’s similar to the Lemieux or Gretzky debates of the late 80’s and early 90’s, only in today’s game there is a prevailing thought that there is only space for one megastar in the game and fans on either side have a ferocious passion partly owing to Crosby’s unsportsmanlike rookie nature and partly owing to the peculiar American and European affinity with Ovechkin.

When you break it down, Crosby isn’t the devil he is made out to be. He is the unfortunate product of the NHL’s desperate marketing scheme propelled furthermore by the Canadian media’s desperation for a new Gretzky. To top it all off his prominence to the highest tier of the sport has coincided with a massive corporate partnership with Reebok to whom many a player “sold-out” and to whom the new starlet was almost doomed to comply, a unprecedented lockout that predetermined the necessity of the draft lottery and the emergence of a truly respected youngster in Ovechkin, whose life and hockey nurturing has been in contrast to that of Crosby’s.

The NHL has been particularly cynical in the way it tries to promote the game with young names; Bettman’s era has seen the same ham-fisted marketing strategy that the league owes its historically varied levels of popularity too. Crosby was just another name to hype and throw around in promoting the league and the Canadian media jumped like a fish to a hook creating this idea that Crosby is some media hungry prima donna more owing to sports like soccer or basketball, a boy in the trappings of a multi-million dollar contract. Ovechkin by contrast, minus a Canadian passport, never received the kind of coverage many believe he deserves and with a modern greater American fan base who have ironically taken to the Russian this has caused a North American divide.

For Canada, Crosby is a renewed hope to promote their game internationally and return to the household name branding that Wayne Gretzky provided so stoically throughout the 80’s and 90’s. The reason people worldwide associate Canada with hockey was in a large part down too Gretzky and the media explosion that came out of his and the NHL’s golden age of marketable viability.
On top of all this, “The Next One” as he has been so glibly dubbed, has had to endure the constant pressure of a sportingly desperate public and the endless comparisons to Gretzky. Crosby is Crosby, he has a physical advantage over Gretzky who negated this issue with ultra fine stick work, on that note alone Gretzky is above and beyond even the most intense expectations. More importantly the game has moved on, defensive strategy is better realized and goaltending more pandered, the trap is truly developed and worked and the simple porosity of the league is no longer so profound. The year Gretzky recorded his first 200 point season; his Edmonton Oilers slotted the opposition for 417 goals, last seasons scoring leaders, the Ottawa Senators, scored just 262 goals, it would take a miracle for any player be it Crosby, Ovechkin or Ken Klee to record 200 points in the modern game.

What has to be remembered is just like Gretzky or any other Canadian, American or European hockey player who has or has not made it to the NHL; Crosby was a kid who grew up dreaming of playing hockey in the big time. Some may question the way he plays but in that respect he is simply a product of the modern game, he has never and never will be Gretzky or Lemieux, he just wants to reach his own goals and leave his own mark on the game. He will grow up and his game will develop and he will hopefully move away from the unsportsmanlike elements in his game to become a true contemporary ambassador for the sport alongside Ovechkin, in the meantime we should criticize any player who chooses to dive or argue with the officials; but not pretend that guys in our own shirts don’t do the same thing, or for that matter sell the shirt of his own back at the first chance.

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