Friday, May 23, 2008

This guy is kidding, right?

Damien Cox writes for the Toronto Star, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt on his hockey knowledge. His article yesterday for ESPN, however, did not demonstrate any of this. Or, to be more accurate, I have to disagree with his conclusions - to the effect of, what the heck is he thinking?

The headline is "Some expect Crosby to elevate NHL in first Cup finals, but is that fair?"

The expectation mentioned is that Sidney Crosby, the über-talented Pittsburgh forward, will be a huge asset to the NHL as it tries to capitalize on his first visit to the Stanley Cup Finals. The answer, in short, is that he's the public face of hockey in the US and it can't possibly hurt the league any. But first, I have to quibble - to wit, the media itself is one of the major sources of this expectation, and nowhere in the article does Cox mention that.

He does mention that the media are "infinitely more complex" today (and really, "infinitely" more complex?), and that Pittsburgh is only the 22nd-largest media market in the US today. But he doesn't mention the impact of the media on such a prediction, except to say that since the markets are smaller, the impact also will be. But if the markets are smaller, shouldn't the expectation be as well?

Of course it isn't, because the games will air and be covered in much larger markets than Pittsburgh - including Detroit, the other team in the Finals (currently the 11th-biggest TV market), and Cox's own market, Toronto, currently #1 in Canada.*

OK, moving on.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it's the most significant chance for the NHL's Great Leap Forward since the New York Rangers snared the Stanley Cup in 1994, an opportunity squandered through a host of problems, including a deadly boring style of game, labor issues, reckless expansion and an inability to cement a major U.S. television presence.

I think one other problem to mention is that the league is terribly marketed, which Cox (to be fair) notes later. If the NHL doesn't make hay on this series, it won't be Sid's fault unless he gets held scoreless and generally plays like crap.

Poor kid, just 20 years of age. Labeled the next Wayne Gretzky before he played an NHL game, he's already been asked to save the Pittsburgh Penguins from insolvency and be the flag bearer for the "new NHL" as it emerged from the destructive lockout of 2004-05.

I will pause here to note that this is an incredible amount of hype - and for the most part, he's lived up to it. He was the league's leading scorer and MVP last season at the age of 19. His team is in the Finals.

Now, with the Penguins about to face the Detroit Red Wings in a glitzy 2008 Stanley Cup finals filled with marquee names and intriguing story lines, Crosby, as the league's top individual marketing tool, is being asked to deliver a virtuoso performance that will somehow vault the NHL into a new level of success and profitability Oh yes, and be a humble, unselfish teammate at the same time while figuring out a way to outfox the Red Wings, merely the NHL's best team this season.

But here's the thing - he isn't being asked to do this for the league's sake. The primary thing is that he and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins want to win the Stanley Cup, probably the most famous and revered trophy in sports history. Every hockey player on Earth dreams of holding it someday, and having his name engraved on its base. Nobody sits around thinking, I don't give a rat's ass about the Cup, but the league needs me, so I'm gonna score a hat trick for Gary Bettman!

Just over four months after providing the NHL with a wonderful Kodak moment -- his shootout winner in a snowstorm at the feel-good Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the suburbs of Buffalo -- Crosby arrives at his first Stanley Cup finals as the youngest to captain a team this far and the first NHLer with a national presence in the U.S. and Canada since, well, Gretzky.

It's funny how Damien Cox is coming up with dozens of reasons why Crosby may be able to deliver in an article in which he eventually concludes that he won't.

Some even suggest that having Crosby in the Cup finals could give the NHL the same enormous boost in popularity the NBA received way back in 1984, when Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics met in that league's championship series. ... Asking Crosby to provide an equivalent push over the next two weeks is, well, probably wholly unrealistic.

Now, the media effect is one, underexplored reason in the article. A second entirely unmentioned reason is that the games are so widely spaced out. This series doesn't even start until tomorrow, despite both semifinals having ended last week. It's not like the Red Wings and Pistons even play in the same arena - and the Pistons were in Boston the past three days. Wouldn't that have been a good time to hold at least Game One?

For starters, he's only one player. Bird and Magic had each other to double the impact.

This would be a great chance to mention Crosby's teammate Evgeni Malkin, and the terrific Detroit pairing of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetteberg. It will be incredible to watch these guys getting after each other.

The NHL in 2008, meanwhile, isn't the NBA circa 1984. Then, the NBA was a largely untapped mine that needed organization, discipline and clear vision. Today's NHL has a veteran commissioner, an international presence and 12-18 solid franchises, yet its roots seem to go barely below the surface in the South and Southwest of the United States, salary costs are again on the rise and Detroit (an Original Six team and "Hockeytown" to some) has seen thousands of empty seats in the playoffs.

No argument from me. Also - none of this is Sid's doing.

Bird and Johnson, meanwhile, played a sport in which their excellence could be celebrated with noteworthy statistical achievements; Crosby labors in a league that, after an explosion of scoring in the first year after the lockout, has slowly gone back to a game in which defense trumps offense.

There was a fine discussion of this over at The Puck Stops Here. The upshot of that conversation was that it's not necessarily goals that keep the fans involved - it's the quality of play, whether or not it results in a 2-0 game of a 6-5 game. If the defense and goaltending is strong, the game can still be a tense thriller, where each thwarted opportunity and each great save, becomes another indelible moment. I watched the third period and all four OTs in the Dallas/San Jose series-ender, and it wasn't because there were a dozen goals. "Noteworthy statistical achievements" is relative, after all. If Sid does get ten points in this series it will be as noteworthy as a 30-point average from a basketball star. It's not that basketball has more noteworthy stats; they're just better-known.

I have the sad feeling that there's a much better article here that Cox managed to squander.

In other words, the ability of any NHL player to stir the imagination is, to some degree, limited by the nature of the modern game itself; -

That's sort of like saying that triangles are limited to some degree by the nature of geometry. Even if everyone were scoring 40 goals a year like the go-go 80's, Sid would be a cut above that. Besides, Sid's got a Gatorade commercial - he seems to be doing well in the modern game.

- the sport is still hidebound by the "Slap Shot" attitudes of those who prefer broken teeth and runnin' the goalie to speed, gorgeous goals and exhibitions of superb skill.

WHAT?!? OK, totally off the rails. Fighting, as was reported on the same day as this appeared, is well down from twenty years ago. (The quote: "According to unofficial statistics at the Web site, fights per game are down from an average of 1.29 per game in 1987-88 to 0.40 last season.") What's even dumber is that the mid-80's also featured the highest scoring in the league's history, so the "Slap Shot" attitude obviously doesn't preclude gorgeous goals and exhibitions of superb skill. Part of the unique appeal of hockey is this juxtaposition - that such great skill can flourish in a game where anyone may come along and knock you clear into next week - or just into your own player's bench. This is both a skilled AND a rugged game.

Meanwhile, this gem of a Cup finals comes at a time when television ratings for the NHL, always strong in Canada but usually minuscule on a national basis in the U.S., have shown some significant upward trends in these playoffs on both NBC and Versus.

You're right! Everything's looking up! WE'RE DOOMED!

Crosby fits nicely within the hockey culture, one in which loudmouth Sean Avery of the Rangers is seen as boorish and self-promoting.

Wasn't Cox just talking about the hidebound Slap Shot mentality - which Avery personifies? Where did that go? Oh, and there's Datsyuk, who's twice won the NHL's Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play at a high level. How do these guys fit in nicely with a culture he just decried as the opposite of their standard? I suppose Cox is trying to say that Crosby and Datsyuk won't appeal to this mentality because of their skill, and thus their potential to raise the league will be diminished - but wouldn't it be easier to type that instead of wandering back and forth?

Believe me, I live in the Northeast and I see it - Avery is the most popular Ranger on the roster, at least to the fans. And he's the most reviled Ranger among the Devils, Flyers, Isles, and etc. In other words, he's the guy everyone loves (or loves to hate). He is hugely popular. Neither is he a talentless goon. He's good enough to score 15 or more goals a year while centering a checking line (and thus also shutting down the opposing team's top threats), and he sees penalty kill and power play time. He could probably do more if he could stay out of the penalty box a bit. Most fellow players don't like him, I daresay, since he demonstrates little or no class on the ice - but he's not just a skating pair of fists.

But in 2008, will Ozzie and Harriet manners and throwback decency (Crosby still lives with Lemieux and his family, for goodness sakes!) be enough for the NHL to get what it wants out of this terrific Stanley Cup finals matchup? Probably not.

And why not?

It's extraordinary to consider what someone so young has already delivered to a league, particularly a league that in so many ways has been almost self-destructive over the past 15 years. Crosby helped save the Penguins. He helped save the NHL from its own greed and stupidity.

Yeah, great reasons why, but why not? Why is this guy writing the exact opposite article he wants to write?

Leaving aside that he could get hurt just like anyone else, there's three reasons. One, his teammates could outshine him. This wouldn't hurt the league all that much if the games themselves were exciting. Second, he could lose, as Gretzky did his first trip to the Finals; we all know how that hindered The Great One. Third, he could get utterly shut down by Nicklas Lidstrom and company - and Cox never mentions Lidstrom at all, only that the Wings were very good this season.

Maybe he could be permitted to celebrate his 21st birthday (on Aug. 7, for those of you scoring at home) before being asked to deliver the NHL to the promised land.

Lay off the kid, he's only the most marketable indivdual in the league playing for the greatest trophy in sports! Or maybe the league should hold off on the games until August 8? Come on - he's here NOW. If the media and the league took this advice, they would be ignoring a golden opportunity to promote the sport as well as the individual, once-in-a-lifetime talent that Sidney Crosby possesses.

The only hindering factor is the league's tendency to stomp itself in the boot. Sid is already doing wonderfully despite that, and there's no realistic reason to fear that he won't continue to do so, simply by keeping up what he's already done.

*Nor does he mention (or link) his source, which I suspect is the same as mine - it lists Pittsburgh 22nd in TV. FWIW, Arbitron's radio ratings have Detroit at 11th and Pittsburgh at 24th. And Toronto? Number one in the Canadian market.

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