Sidney Crosby is set to return to the ice soon for the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first time in nearly 10 months and however you may feel about him, this is good thing for hockey. Crosby has become an ambassador for a sport that desperately needs them.
Professional hockey has always struggled in some areas to find it's niche as a mainstream sport. Since the 2004-2005 NHL Lockout, the league has been doing everything it can to recover and expand it's fanbase.
In the post lockout NHL, several rule changes came about to showcase the high skill level of some of the league's top players, two of whom entered the league in it's return season. Alex Ovechkin and future Stanley Cup winner Sidney Crosby burst onto the scene and competed for the Calder Trophy (awarded to Ovechkin as the NHL's best rookie). It was just what the league needed to give it a boost: a fresh rivalry between two of the best young stars the sport had to offer.
After several seasons and accolades (both have won the Hart and Art Ross trophies) Sidney Crosby managed to set himself apart in an undesired way. He was caught up directly in the biggest hot button sports topic since steroids in baseball:
On January 1st, 2011 at the Winter Classic Crosby had his head down and skated into the path of Dave Steckel and got his bell rung. He stayed in the game and suited up 4 days later against the Tampa Bay Lighting, a game which saw Crosby get hit into the boards from behind by Victor Hedman.
He hasn't played since.
I'm not going to debate the legality of the hits because that horse has been "blindside elbowed" to death. It's not so much that the Crosby hits were dirty, it's that they happened to a marquee guy, which got more people asking important questions. With Crosby on the verge of making his return (after speaking out against the league's failure to properly crack down on head shots) one of those questions I find to be the most intriguing is:
"How do the other players, play against him?"
As much as I would hate to see it, there will probably be a wide berth given to Crosby the first couple of games. But that will not last long. When a guy like Crosby is KILLING your team, there is an expectation to go out there and send a message. That doesn't mean what it used to in the old NHL (a magical time when "sending a message" might as well have meant "shank the guy"), but even so, it is expected for players to raise the level of physicality and stop the threat.
I'm not suggesting everyone just gives him a clear path to the net, but you have to admit anyone who throws a hit on the guy in the next few weeks will be under intense scrutiny from the league. Justified or not. Spoken or unspoken, it will happen. If anyone comes within a whiff of the league's "golden goose", NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan will be watching. Heaven forbid the league is required to market George Parros as a "must see" NHL superstar.
If you think "Sheriff Shanny" isn't going to destroy anyone that lays a dirty hit on Crosby you are crazy. Shanny is there to protect all the players (and has been handing out suspensions for nonsense at an impressive rate) but there is something special about marquee players. Issues with them shine a light on the problems within the league and the measures being taken to stop those problems.
There is an odd parallel between Sidney Crosby and a former young, skilled NHL forward.
One of my favorite players growing up recently retired due to complications brought on from many concussions he received during his NHL tenure. At one time he was the youngest captain in the league and was a huge part of turning a fledgling franchise into a contender. He was a multi-time All-star, Lady Byng winner and runner up in the Hart Trophy balloting in 1997. He was from Vancouver, BC.
His name is Paul Kariya.
Paul Kariya, several years and a few concussions into his career received another one at the hands of "Concussion-Bot" Scott Stevens. It being the Stanley Cup Finals, Kariya manned up, returned and even scored a late goal to force a game 7, which they lost. The effort (not the hit) was deemed by many to be "Bombay Approved".
Sadly Kariya was never the same player. Although he had a good year here and there, you never felt like you were watching the same player you were before all of his concussions. After his retirement, he had some strong words for the league regarding their enforcement of player safety regarding concussions.
“The thing that I worry about, is that you’ll get a guy who is playing with a concussion, and he gets hit, and he dies at centre ice. Can you imagine what would happen to the league if a guy dies at centre ice?”
"If you start at 10-game suspensions and go to 20, that sends a message to the players. But if you start fining the owners and suspending the coach, then it’s out of the game."
With a big name superstar like Crosby now being involved in this controversy, the league is heavily focused on ensuring the safety of it's players and the quality of it's on ice product.
But is it enough?
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another one of my favorite players as a kid who had his potential diminished and his career cut short due to concussion.
Time will tell if Sidney Crosby can regain the momentum he had before his concussion and remain one of the premiere players of this generation. But even with a close eye being kept on him, can anything be done to avoid seeing not just superstars, but average players "in a crumpled heap"?
Hockey is a fast and passionate game, it's going to happen again.
Thanks for reading.
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