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December 13, 2006

It's the Crosby Show
As Crosby and Ovechkin renewed their rivalry this week, TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski examines its impact on the league and makes the case for why Sid's the real star of the two.

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- While watching overtime in the Pittsburgh/Washington game on Monday night, you began to realize that this is one of the few situations in today's National Hockey League where you actually gave a damn about the individuals, rather than the teams, on the ice.

The crowd's reaction to every touch of the puck by Nos. 87 and 71 in white and No. 8 in black was undeniably electrifying. I hadn't heard a hockey crowd in D.C. this boisterous since that time they put up two dudes on the Kiss Cam.

A pumped-up arena, a national television audience, international media attention, and a battle between a trio of players that could carry hockey's torch for the next two decades...

...yet for Sidney Crosby, it was just another game, even with the man who owns his Calder Trophy skating for the other side.

Archived Articles

(Dec. 02) The Rory Details
(Nov. 19) Revenge of the Nerds
(Nov. 01) A Scheduled Interruption
(Oct. 23) The Legion of Doomed
(Sept. 12) The Real Roots of Hockey
(Aug. 12) 10 Biggest Hockey Headlines of the Summer
(June 20) How Edmonton Lost the Stanley Cup
(June 15) Lou's coaching moves speak volumes
(June 1) The NHL's Quiet Rebellion
(May 25) Bad Brad, or Bolt of Genius?
(May 18) Leave the Playoffs Alone, Gary
(May 11) Deep Sigh Diving
(May 04) Niedersmyther
(Apr. 27) The NHL's Attendance Myth
(Apr. 20) A Hockey Cynic's Guide to the Wales Conference Playoffs
(Apr. 13) The 'Canes Scrutiny
(Apr. 06) Ruffling the Peacock's Feathers
(Mar. 30) The Next Great Hockey Town, OK?
(Mar. 23) The NHL Blog Bust
(Mar. 16) Gerber, baby!
(Mar. 09) Deadline? Dead Time.
(Mar. 02) Clearly, This Rule's a Bad Idea

"That's the way it needs to be," he said in the jubilant Penguins locker room, following their 5-4, come-from-behind, victory at the Verizon Center. "The game doesn't change just because we're playing. It's nice that we can bring attention to the game, but at the same time we have to focus at being better and helping our team."

Both Alexander Ovechkin and Crosby have made a concerted effort to shift the focus of their rivalry from themselves to that of their teams; late last season, Ovechkin even told me that his feud with Crosby was "done." Someone obviously forgot to relay that message to the NHL, which held a conference call with the two stars to hype Monday's game, covered its homepage with articles about the showdown, and sent out an e-mail blast hours before face-off entitled "Crosby VERSUS Ovechkin" to pimp the fact that the two would be exchanging pleasantries on national television that evening. (VERSUS being the name of the American cable provider for the NHL. I hear they occasionally show ice hockey matches in between rodeos and barbequing competitions.)

"It's built up so much. I think we'd be lying if we said we weren't trying to have a good game," Crosby said. "When there's that many people watching, who doesn't want to have a good game?"


And it was a good game, bordering on great, with the Penguins overcoming a 4-0 deficit to win in a shootout. It was also basically Gary Bettman's wet dream: decided with a skills competition featuring (arguably) the three most talented skill-position players in the league; a key goal and assist for Sidney, two assists and a shootout goal for Alex, and an assist, a game-tying goal and a game-winning shootout goal — one that nearly faked Olie Kolzig out of his pads — for Evgeni Malkin, the newest addition to this holy hockey trinity.

For one game, the spotlight was focused on a team that needs slot machines to keep it from relocating, and another that can't outdraw the slot parlor at the Trump Taj Mahal on most nights.

Fleeting as it was, this game offered a glimpse at what it is Bettman's been trying to sell for the last 13 years — the NHL-as-NBA, a nightly battle of individual talents uninhibited by systems that promote defense or rules that discourage offense.

It's always been a foolhardy plan, because the NHL has the star-making capability of a black hole, and because you can't market the ultimate team game with talent that's only in the spotlight one-third of the time. (Too bad the NHL isn't a Sega Genesis game — Bettman could just use the "no line changes" option and keep Sid and Alex out there for the full 60.) But, for one night, the stars were shining, quite brightly.

By now, the dies have been cast in this rivalry. Ovechkin is the free spirit, rough around the edges, and a raging freight-train-of-a-player on the ice. Crosby is the confident, born-to-be-a-star prodigy, whose brilliant talent has been matched — sometimes overshadowed — by a growing reputation for petulance. These personas were never more evident than in three moments during this game.

There was the first-period tripping penalty on Crosby — one he quickly disputed on his way to the sin bin, and one that saw the Penguin mouth an expletive on live television that would have made Samuel L. Jackson blush.

There was the set-up for the Capitals' third goal, a quintessential "Ovechkin play" as he bulled his way into the Penguins' zone, and then showed unparalleled strength in knocking Brooks Orpik down in the Pittsburgh crease while whacking away at the puck — keeping it alive long enough for Chris Clark to cash in.

And then there was Crosby, at 18:43 of the second period, silencing his critics and wiping the slate clean with a quick blast from the slot that beat Kolzig and closed the lead to a single goal entering the third. It was arguably the most important goal of the game for the Penguins, and was scored by their unquestioned on-ice leader.

Every hockey message board in North America has a thread debating the virtues of Crosby and Ovechkin. Who has more talent? Who means more to his team? Who should start in the all-star game, with the honor of lining up against Rory Fitzpatrick?

The bottom line is that Ovechkin became Ovechkin last season for two reasons: The Phoenix Goal and Sidney Crosby. If he didn't have Sid as his foil, his nemesis, his measuring stick in his rookie season, he would have been Ilya Kovalchuk, only with highlight-reel body-checks and a personality transplant.

Crosby was already a megastar, thanks to the "Sidney Crosby Derby" and the Gretzky endorsements and the special draft lottery. Ovechkin needed that rub to get over the top and become a sensation. It's like with professional wrestling, or with comic books: the face is only as good as his heel, the hero only as good as his villain.

That Crosby is, at the same time, the constant complainer, the occasional diver, and perhaps the most talented young player in the NHL makes him a more vital star to the league than Ovechkin. Mainly because people generally like Ovechkin, and a lot of them don't like Crosby. And that divisive quality is what made us stop and watch Messier and Mario and Lindros in ways we never made time for guys like Yzerman, Sakic and Modano.

Whatever it is that makes us cast a fresh-faced, personable and savvy kid like Sidney Crosby as a villain, it's the same thing that's going to keep us enthralled by him for the next 15 years. And it's the reason why every city in North America that can freeze water and doesn't currently house an NHL franchise is hoping to be the answer to "The ________ Penguins" in the next few years.

Someone asked Sid after the game if he felt it was unfair that he and Ovechkin had been charged with carrying this league — and specifically for him, his franchise — as hockey's most popular stars.

"In my point of view, I don't feel like I have to rescue a franchise or a league. I'm happy to be part of both, but there's a lot of young talent that brings some excitement besides me and Alex," he said.

The challenge for the NHL is to get us to care about those players an iota as much as we care about "Crosby VERSUS Ovechkin."

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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