Recently, sports columnists barreled over each other trying to condemn the Saints “bounty” system, after it somehow leaked that coaches would pay players for injuring the other team’s stars. While some say the vast majority of NFL teams do this, most sports fans, blissfully unaware that some outside linebacker is now $10,000 richer for breaking your favorite QB’s leg. But this problem is happening in hockey as well, and it may have cost the league it’s most talented young star, Sidney Crosby.
Most sports fans, even those who consider hockey some fringe Canadian hobby that should be ignored (like everyone at ESPN) recognize the name Sidney Crosby. Coming out of the labor stoppage that cancelled the 2004-05 season – and another lockout may be on the horizon, oh joy – the league was struggling to get fans back after being away. Lo and behold, one of the most highly touted young kids was eligible for the draft. Wayne Gretzky, a name I hope I don’t have to explain, said a 17-year-old Crosby could potentially break his records at the NHL level. Now that Crosby is 24, it’s clear he will never touch Gretzky.
So Crosby entered the NHL, playing alongside hall of famer Mario Lemieux – which acted as a “pass the torch” moment as the man who was the face of the Penguins since 1984 shared a locker room with the boy who would be the face for 20+ years. He put up nice points, however the criticisms of his conduct started. He developed a reputation as a diver – one who exaggerates a hit in order to draw a penalty, as well as someone who whined to the officials when he didn’t get his way. Next time you see a Philadelphia Flyers fan, ask them for their opinion on Crosby and see how long it takes the words “diver” and “whiner” to grow up.
Then, the success started coming. Certain teammates of Crosby, they themselves early draft picks, got better, such as Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. In 2008 they made it to the NHL finals, in 2009 they finally won. At 21 years, 10 months, and 5 days, Crosby became the youngest captain ever to win the Stanley Cup. In the midst of the celebration, he refused to shake the opposing captain’s hand. A year later, in the Olympic gold medal game between the United States in Canada, Crosby scored the game winning goal in overtime. While his wunderkind NBA counterpart Lebron James could only win as a member of Olympic basketball teams, Crosby had already taken home the two most valuable prizes a hockey player could ask for. Add that to his Hart Trophy (MVP), and the future looked bright for Crosby. Then it all came crashing down. Oddly enough, on the first day of 2011.
It was the annual NHL Winter Classic, a yearly tradition (even though it stared in 08) where two teams play outdoors, and HBO sends their 24/7 crew to follow the teams around and capture their lives leading up to the game. The focus seemed to be one the league’s top superstars at that moment, Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. Hockey had finally found their Magic/Bird rivalry, two elite players who stepped their game up every time they faced each other. Then Crosby got hurt.
With Crosby’s head on a swivel looking at the puck, Captials player Dave Steckel stepped up and delivered a blindside hit to the head. Steckel wasn’t even called for a penalty for the play that would start the demise of Crosby. 5 days later, he received a similar hit to the head from 6’6 Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman. Citing concussion issues, he did not play for the rest of the season. Since then, he’s played in 8 NHL games.
November 21, 2011, Crosby returned to the ice to face my favorite team, the New York Islanders. He promptly scored two goals and two assists, leading the Penguins to a 5-0 victory. To Penguins fans, there was reason to rejoice: Crosby was back, he was healthy, and he hadn’t lost his game. He scored 12 points in 8 games until getting elbowed in the head by Boston’s David Krejci. Then he was out again.
Now, he plans on returning tomorrow, March 15th, to face the New York Rangers. At the moment, thanks to an MVP-caliber year for Malkin, the Penguins currently sit at 4th in the East. Although Penguins fans are anxious for Crosby to get back on the ice and hopefully win another cup, there’s still the underlying paranoia of how Crosby will react the first time he gets hit. This is professional hockey – every single game he plays, the opposing team knows how fragile he is. The penguins have 14 games left in the regular season, will Crosby be healthy for them all? Not to mention the playoffs, where the intensity skyrockets up as teams fight to stay alive. The simple fact remains that every single player in the NHL knows Sidney Crosby and knows about his concussion issues. Although I doubt any player will receive a $10,000 paycheck for knocking Crosby out of action, he has a target on his jersey for the rest of his life.