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NHL Can’t Afford Crosby Exit

Posted By Steven Keys On Sep 8 2011 @ 10:15 am In Pittsburgh Penguins | No Comments

Sport is different things to different people.

For the student body, game-day is the pinnacle. Jubilation or despair when time expires, you can be sure a shindig or two will top it all off.

For the pro fan, game-time means TV gatherings and tailgates.

For the gambler and fantasy fanatic, the spectacle is only a numbers game.

And for the corporate mind, sport is a supercharged promotion vehicle. Nothing…not fantasy, not gambling, not violence, not even sex, fuels the coupé like celebrity.

Celebrity is what moves the markets and makes Presidents. It’s what sells merchandise and sends social media all a twitter. It puts quotes around LeBron’s “decision” and gets reporters by the truckload up to Minnesota to film Brett’s jet hitting the tarmac in 2009.

Every sport has their marketable mugs. In the NFL it‘s Peyton, Tom & Rex; b-ball, Kobe & LeBron; US racing, Kyle, Jeff & Danica; tennis, Nadal, Federer & the Williams; soccer, Messi, Ronaldo & Rooney.

Then there are golf and baseball. PGA hawkers are strategizing today for Tiger & Phil’s successors. And when ball players (MLBPA) ever concede to a blood test (HGH) and remove suspicion, celebrity will return to the sport from which it was born (King Kelly / Babe Ruth).

In hockey, it’s Nick Lidstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby who’re the headliners.

But these are strange days for the NHL.

On the one hand, times are good.

In April, NHL brass inked a new 10-year, US market, TV agreement with NBC Sports Group worth a reported $200 million annually. The most lucrative deal of its type in hockey history, it includes an expanded slate of both playoff and regular season broadcasts (“NHL, NBC“ / NHL.com / 4-19).

The NHL’s also experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with four of its original six members having hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in recent years after decades of drought. For the Rangers (‘94) & Blackhawks (‘09) it was short-lived euphoria, while only Detroit has built on their breakthrough Cup (’97-98, ‘02, ‘08). As for Boston: let the puck drop.

On the other hand, times are tough at hockey central.

Among the 43 dead from Wednesday’s plane crash in Yaroslavl, Russia was nearly the entire Lokomotiv (KHL) hockey team. Their roster represented “10 nations” and the NHL, including their coach Brad McCrimmon (Detroit). Two men survived in “very grave” condition. It’s one of the worst aviation accidents in sport history (“Russian Jet“ / AP / 9-7).

The mass expansion of recent decades produced dividends by way of titles (Ducks 07 / Canes 06 / TB 04 / CO 01 / Stars 99) and merchandise sales but hasn’t yet moved sun-belters to warm-up to the ice.

Every sport has its marquee franchise(s). Parity (hope) is a good thing but your banner team (Habs) better hoist the hardware once a decade. Montreal’s last Cup was ‘93 while Toronto hasn’t held Mr. Stanley since The Beatles went hippie in ‘67 (Sgt Pepper). Not good.

The recent death of former ice-fighter Wade Belak (8/31) was the third suicide / suspicious death of an NHL player in as many months, following the suicide of Rick Rypien and a reported accidental drug overdose by Derek Boogaard (5/28).

Gary Bettman and Don Fehr delivered the standard response to the string of tragedies that’s befallen the NHL family this off-season: ”We’re committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may’ve contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare” (“Report: Wade Belak” / AP / 9-1).

Calgary Flames’ GM Craig Button had a more human take on the subject: “I don’t think anybody can stop until we really understand the impact it has (enforcing) not only physically, but emotionally as well (Report).”

Enforcers and the pain they inflict are at the center of controversy swirling around the NHL every season: excessive violence. Not just the too frequent fist-a-cuffs but the vicious hits that stop the action and sometimes stop careers. Both feed off eachother.

It’s that same thugery which may send into early-retirement the NHL’s marquee player, Sidney Crosby. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ star center has been inactive since suffering a concussion from a series of blindside hits in early January (“Crosby” / Lexis / 8-25).

Crosby puts up the numbers, wins cups and conducts himself in a manner reminiscent of the game’s greats. But the NHL doesn’t sell celebrity, not in the States, anyway. It sells fights. Physicality’s one thing, brain trauma’s another. And any fan who spouts-off different never got blindsided five-feet into cold space.

It’s a League where referees stand by and watch the melees. While most serious skaters won’t start fights, turning away isn’t an option. Like PEDs, if unions & owners ignore a problem many athletes eventually get sucked in. Leadership, or its absence, does matter.

As long as NHL brass appease fight-fans and let excess-violence dictate the action, hockey in America will remain a second-tier sport. But then NBC may think ‘Blood on the Ice’ is “Must See TV.” Given what passes for tube-fare today I wouldn’t say that’s a crazy strategy. Immoral maybe, hockey-ignorant definitely, but not crazy.

There’s a nip in the air up Northway and training camp is just around the corner (9/16). The Penguins are being cautious on Sidney’s return. Concussions are serious stuff (Lindros / Savard). Crosby spoke to his health at a Wednesday press event: “I’m very lucky. I feel pretty good (ESPN / 9-7).” Off the ice, he probably does.

With a new TV contract and expected wider audience, the NHL can ill afford an early retirement of its biggest star. The question is, with the current state of hockey and Sidney Crosby’s compromised condition, can the Pittsburgh center afford to return?

Street Fare

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