The first instance I had of roaming about the bowels of Verizon Center with media credentials on a visit by Sidney Crosby, in his rookie season, I took advantage of the opportunity, and actually put a couple of questions to him in the visitors’ locker room. They were questions about the longstanding rivalry between the Capitals and Penguins, and I thought he answered with commendable thoughtfulness. However, as his media star has risen and as the league has, in uncritical, unchallenged, autopilot fashion, foisted upon him the role of be-all, end-all in its marketing endeavors, Crosby has been media trained into tediousness. Worse, his true nature has been revealed: he’s convention-of-engineers-at-happy-hour dull.
You’ve seen the canned constructs along the dasher boards with Pierre et al. The setting can be as grand as Buffalo’s football stadium in snowglobe conditions on New Years’ Day; no matter, Sidney will soundbite the situation into somnambulism.
Or, if he’s ticked off by defeat, as on Sunday, he can be petulant and phony. Warm, engaging, unguarded, and self-effacing? Never.
It was true even four years ago: Ovechkin and his 70-word comprehension of English then were more engaging and endearing on live TV than his Canadian franchise player counterpart. If only that were the problem in Pittsburgh today.
Some would even suggest that there is as well a punk quality to the anointed one: keep your head up against him in the faceoff circle, and be aware that your jewel case is at risk if you’re busy in a scrum with one of his teammates. These Crosby crimes of ’08-’09 didn’t quite live up to hockey’s code of ethics.
Sunday’s game was revealing not only as state of the union illustration of one franchise’s seemingly durable rise set against the other’s sudden crash, but with respect to the character and charisma of the NHL’s two leading lights. In this Year Four of their rivalry-reign, we are seeing serious separation — what appears to be Secretariat matched against Sunday Silence: Triple Crown race winners both, but not in the same league of star. Expect the gap to widen further.
The herd-formula was at work again in the Sunday post-game. The second period jawing and jabbing between the two headliners meant the predictable press questions and, from Crosby, Pop-Tart substance answers. Here’s what should have been asked of him:
- Ovechkin last June left Toronto the most decorated forward in NHL history for one season’s work, and this season he’s adding to his legend, developing a reputation as Mr. Third Period, Mr. Clutch. What do you have to do to elevate your game to his level? And:
- Can you?
If hockey doesn’t work out for Alexander Semin, it looks like he could fall back on fortune telling.
In a wildly amusing bit of unintended condemnation, the media Sunday asked Crosby about the “appropriateness” of Alexander Ovechkin’s unbridled joy after scoring goals. (Because, you know, hockey is supposed to be just like golf when it comes to celebrations.) The obviously unspoken undercurrent of this question was “Is there room in hockey for a rock star, Mr. Neil Diamond?” This perhaps is the start of the much-needed, media-led realignment of stars.
The NHL, however, remains in a horrendously awkward position. It’s confronting the very real possibility of a Crosby-less postseason, while his counterpart in the once barren hockey wasteland of Washington is turning the town on its collective sporting ear. Ovechkin’s Caps, with their Plan B goaltender, may well just play hockey into final four territory, or better. Crosby’s Pens, every reporter who watches them observes, aren’t altogether short on talent — qualifying for the postseason is something they should do in their shower sandals. What are we to conclude about the mettle of the faux messiah?
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Or was it? The Hockey News began touting Ovechkin’s once-in-a-generation creds when he was 16. What does it say of the NHL that it more or less ignored the sport’s bible in its poster boy formulations? The answer in this corner is pernicious and insidious.
Sunday, on national television, delivered stark relief — for most observers not named Sports Illustrated or ESPN — of the now plainly apparent contrast. From his first NHL shift Sidney Crosby skated with an air of entitlement, a prima dona’s presumption of protectionism. The ever-unassuming Ovechkin scores, screams, jumps for joy as if he’s scored his first-ever goal, and seeks to be buried in the embrace of teammates. But he also plays the game the way of its etched-in-stone-ethos: he’d just as soon hurt you with his shoulder as with his wrists. He plays with a readily apparent joy, and his greatest joy is celebrating with teammates and making his rink a breathtaking bowl of bedlam.
Sounds marketable to me.