Before the 2005 National Hockey League Entry Draft, 17-year-old Sidney Crosby was one of the most hyped junior players in the history of the sport. His reputation was such that by the time he was 15, he had already signed with major Canadian sponsors – Sher-Wood, the maker of hockey sticks and Frameworth, a provider of hockey memorabilia. In short, he was dubbed the next Wayne Gretzky… and his timing for entrance into the NHL was impeccable.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Crosby with the first overall pick in the entry draft, the league was recovering from a black eye – courtesy of a player’s lockout the previous year. The NHL needed to restore its image and regain the trust of its fans and its sponsors… and it set out to accomplish this by heavily promoting Crosby’s coming into the league. Eventually, with all the hype, mainstream sponsors came flocking to endorse the wunderkind from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Gatorade, Reebok, and Pepsi lined up to get a piece of Crosby. Reports revealed that he signed the richest sponsorship deal in the history of the NHL when Reebok reportedly inked him to a 5-year $10 million contract.
The hype received by athletes like LeBron James, Jennifer Capriati, and soccer player Freddy Adu before they entered into the world of professional sports is a small comparison of what surrounded Crosby. Exhibit A: the 2005 NHL draft lottery (ESPN) was entitled: “The Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.”
Without a doubt, a ton of expectations enfolded Crosby as he came into the NHL five years ago; and he delivered. At the end of his rookie year, his numbers showed 39 goals and 63 assists for 102 points – good enough for a sixth place finish in the league’s scoring race. And his well-managed brand helped to fill many seats around the league.
Things got even better, as Crosby flourished during his sophomore year when he became the youngest player and only teenager to win a scoring title in any major North American sports league. His 2006-2007 season-ending stats showed 36 goals and 84 assists (120 points) – good enough to win the league’s scoring and MVP titles. The following season (2007-2008), “Sid the Kid,” as he is nicknamed, led the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals where they lost in six games to the Detroit Red Wings. A year later, however, it was Crosby and his teammates who turned the tables on the Red Wings and hoisted the cup after a thrilling seven-game series.
With four full NHL seasons under his belt, Crosby’s resume shows the following: One scoring title, an MVP award, and a Stanley Cup ring. Not a bad portfolio at all. But as we look at Crosby’s scoring numbers today… and compare them with Gretzky’s and Mario Lemieux’s numbers during the same timeframe of their careers… here is the question: Are his scoring numbers still fulfilling expectations?
Clearly, the publicity and endorsement deals received by Crosby prior to entering the NHL far exceeded that received by Gretzky and Lemieux – arguably the two greatest players in league history. The visibility and promotion that enshrouded Crosby led many students of the game to put him in the Gretzky and Lemieux circle – an unfair move indeed. As he enters his fifth year with the Penguins, it’s fair to conclude that Crosby is no Lemieux or Gretzky. His numbers just don’t add up – in spite of winning a Stanley Cup.
Unlike Gretzky, Crosby doesn’t have the ability to control a game with his stick handling and passing. And in comparison to Lemieux, he doesn’t have the long and effortless lines in his skating that Lemieux had or the ability to continually control the puck from off the boards in the attacking zone and sweep in front of the net to create scoring opportunities.
Gretzky and Lemieux had the uncanny ability to break a game open with their end to end plays. Crosby, on the other hand, is not cut from this mold. After four seasons in the NHL… what I am seeing is a more hard-nosed player cut from the fabric of a Steve Yzerman, the former Detroit Red Wing player who combined hard work and leadership on the ice to make a difference for his team. And as he progresses in his career, his hallmark is more aligned with that of a talented grinder. He dives for loose pucks and throws his weight around with complete abandonment. While he doesn’t create a ton of space on the ice like Gretzky and Lemieux did, Crosby crashes the net more effectively and plays very well in heavy traffic.
According to NHL analyst Matthew Barnaby, Crosby’s numbers cannot be compared to those of Lemieux or Gretzky because they played the game in a different era.
“When Lemieux and Gretzky were around, the game was much more wide open,” Barnaby said. “It was more about offense than defense. It was easy for those two to be dominant, because they did not have to face the sophisticated defensive systems that today’s players face. In the NHL today we see more of the trap (zone defense) system; we have more good players than ever before; and we are seeing more effective coaching due to improved technology. We will no longer see players scoring 140 points a season.”
Barnaby, who played 14 seasons in the NHL and now works for ESPN as a hockey analyst, said currently Crosby is one of the best players – if not the best – in the world. A player like Crosby, he says, is great for hockey because the aura that surrounds his brand can definitely bring more fans to the game.
With a portfolio of sponsors that include those previously mentioned, and others like Telus Communications (Canadian-based) and Upper Deck, Crosby is definitely in a league of his own among current hockey players when it comes to brand endorsement.
So what can the NHL do to utilize the personal success of Crosby for the greater good of the sport’s popularity? For starters, the league has ramped up its efforts to position the game on a nationwide platform with the NHL Winter Classic, an annual outdoor game. The nationally televised (NBC) event typically occurs on January 1 and has caught on enough in three years for major sponsor Bridgestone to come board.
Without a doubt, the NHL’s front office is taking steps to further market its brand and reputation; and it’s doing this through showcasing Crosby and other young stars in the league like Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals); and Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks). We’ll see if these athletes can help shine a brighter light on hockey this season.
About the Author
Written by Donovan Wilson
Donovan is a professional writer with more than 10 years of corporate communications and public relations experience. He currently resides in the Phoenix, Arizona area where he currently does freelance work for the Arizona Repubilc. With a degree in English from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and a Master's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri - Columbia, Donovan has written for a variety of newspapers across the country. The single parent of an 13-year old boy, Donovan is a physical fitness enthusiast whom you can find on a soccer field or in the gym enduring an intense cardio workout. A sports enthusiast, Donovan has played competitive college hockey, soccer, and track and field. During his spare time, it’s not uncommon to see Donovan volunteering his services to a homeless shelter in Phoenix where he helps to feed the homeless. Currently, Donovan sits on the board of two nonprofit organizations – Green Nonprofits, Inc. and Queens Sickle Cell Advocacy Network, Inc. in New York City.