It’s no secret that most hockey fans loathe the shootout. It’s not hockey, it is a one hundred and eighty degree departure from the team aspect of the sport that millions and millions of people across the globe adore. It’s been in place for years, and so degraded the once exciting penalty shot to the point where hockey fans who are outside the room momentarily no longer rush back to the screen to see them. Often penalty shots don’t even make the game highlights. Before the lockout that was just unthinkable. Even the staunchest non sports fans would sit rapt, eyes fixed and breathless while a penalty shot was taken. Now, not so much.
It has now been announced that with the return of the (media proclaimed, NHL ordained) most exciting player in hockey (according to all the media primers the NHL has foisted off on the world since before the lockout ended) Sidney Crosby is set to return. This is great for him No one why enjoys hockey, no one who’s in anyway a decent person can be anything other than pleased he’s made a full recovery and can return to doing what he loves. It’s almost certainly a good thing for the team that has learned to play and win without him. The team is hardly struggling without him, and the team they are playing can’t be considered a top tier rival.
As has been noted, the last game Crosby played was in January. That’s 11 months of recovery, and more than a seasons worth of games missed, not to mention the playoff time. The Penguins have been hitting on all cylinders and sit tied atop the east. With so much time missed, and so many good things going on for the team you can’t help but wonder how much his return is going to disrupt that chemistry. Which makes it all the more surprising that Versus/NHLNetwork have decided to “flex” the Penguins – Islanders tilt into the national spotlight over what is possibly the greatest rivalry in sports.
What makes this even more curious is the all mighty ratings race. Boston Bruins games have beaten the NFL in two consecutive weeks of head to head action. This is the type of thing any sensible network and sports league would fall all over themselves to push as a national trend. Further, the Boston Bruins are on a ridiculous pace in multiple stats. With the NBA out of the way for the rest of the year, this is the sort of sublime opportunity a well run organization would sell its soul and grandmother for. With the Bruins entering a game with their chief rival with the NHL’s longest active win streak on the line against a team who has beaten them twice this season and whom the went to overtime in game seven of a playoff series against not very long ago, it’s a no brainer. Add in all the snowbirds from New England and Canada residing in warmer climates and you’re giving up a rivalry that can spur interest across two nations in favor of highlighting a single player who hasn’t been relevant to the game in nearly a year.
Worse, with so much time having passed between games played, what if Crosby comes out and is shutout? The Islanders have highly variable discipline, and were the recipients of a 6-0 thumping at the hands of the reigning Stanley Cup champions. There’s no way on earth a team with on ice leaders like Brian Rolston and Mark Streit isn’t going to have the team whipped into a frenzy, and no coach can fail to find something to motivate their team with from a beating like that. Mix in the return of the a player dubbed “the next one” before he took to NHL ice the first time, and the recent history for the two teams, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster for the Penguins.
Since the marketing of the NHL has been so top heavy for years in marketing less than a handful of players this has the potential to be a devastating, down right debilitating blow to the NHL’s marketing campaign. In an effort to snag casual fans they’ve set it up so that “the next one” has to come out and not merely play a decent game but earn all the superlatives that are applied to everything short of his digestive evacuations. If John Tavares comes out and scores a hat trick or get’s four points and Crosby is held scoreless or even gets one or two points it’s pretty hard for even the NHL’s spin doctors to massage that into a dominant performance. No doubt they’ll try, but if the Islanders come out as a team and beat Crosby and or the Penguins, the casual fan has no motivation to keep watching the NHL if “the best player in the game” is beaten by a perennial basement dweller.
Worse, the marketing of the individual over the sport has been tried before. It’s been tried, and it has failed miserably. The currently locked out NBA has been marketing the player over the whole product for years. They are currently locked out in a three cornered death match as big market owners, small market owners and players shiv each other publicly. In the past decade and a half no few teams have folded, relocated or been forced into sale due to lack of support for the team.
The NBA has even spawned the most godawful sports-media spectacle in major league history with Lebron James The Decision. Is that what the NHL is looking to be? A laughing stock that has guys with no championship chops, no legacy, no claim to anything but a well primed hype machine holding a teams ability to sign talent hostage so they can grandstand and have so-called members of the media verbally felicitate them in a carefully constructed interview that makes the worst of Hulk Hogan and John Cena skits look fresh and off the cuff? That’s where it’s headed.