It will be years yet before Crosby’s ultimate ranking among the game’s greatest players can be fairly determined. And it’ll still be possible to make a case that others were better — it’s a never-ending debate, one in which Orr and Gretzky will have their supporters, and you’ll even be able to find contrarians like Hockey Hall of Fame coach Pat Burns, who told me he thought Mario was the best, but that he’d deny it if I quoted him directly. But what can be stated categorically, even though he’s just past the seeming midpoint of his career, is that no NHL player has ever single-handedly influenced the way the game is played to the degree that Sidney Crosby has. Crosby came along at the time of the NHL’s most desperate need. When he was dubbed “the Baby Jesus” or described as “a saviour,” it wasn’t completely facetious; his team, the league and, at a fundamental level, the game itself needed saving.
As unseen as he might’ve been before breaking into the NHL, Crosby as a pro has been seen much more than any of the game’s great players. It’s simply a function of the times and technology: he also came along at a time when his games would never be “dark.” Richard and Howe’s games in the ’40s were seen by only those in the arena. The stars of the ’60s and ’70s were seen on national television in Canada only on Saturday nights, and in the US barely at all. Players might get some exposure in their local markets, but then there were players like Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks, whose home games weren’t televised in Chicago. By the ’80s and ’90s, television’s reach was extended, but nowhere near to the extent it is today. It’s no overstatement to say that any NHL game can be seen by anyone, anywhere in the world, at their convenience, live or on playback. In the old days, Howe, Hull and Orr’s heroics played out in grainy black and white on a small screen, while Crosby skates as big as life on wall-sized high-definition units with stereophonic sound. Fans in the last row of the arena can read the expression on his face on high-def Jumbotron screens. From the ’40s through the ’70s, we had some sense of the legends — their faces, the sounds of their voices — but their stories were told at second and third hand. Now, you can summon up Crosby’s life story on Google.
And not only has Crosby been accessible to the world, but he has been able to take his game to the world stage. For Richard and Beliveau and others, the idea of international hockey was a fever dream. Their best hockey was played in the confines of a six-team league, or in an expanded league in which only six teams mattered. Further, this league was made up almost entirely of Canadians. The NHL had a provincial outlook. Orr and Hull had an opportunity to play against international teams, but this was a case of the world coming to them, very late in their careers, giving everyone just a taste of what might have been. Gretzky and Lemieux had their chances to go up against the world’s best, although in their primes they skated only in the Canada Cup and World Cup of Hockey, in-house affairs that provided some historic moments, along with many other moments that were less so. Only in their last years were Nos. 99 and 66 able to play in the Olympics, Gretzky with crashing disappointment, Lemieux with a more satisfying, if not fully resonant, swan song.
Of those in the all-time top 10, only Crosby has had a chance to take his game to the world: two appearances in the world junior championship and two in the Olympics, as well as a World Cup and an IIHF World Championship tournament. The NHL’s decision to pass on the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea denied Crosby the chance to take a Canadian team to a third straight Olympic gold, but it’s not beyond the realm of belief that he might return to the big stage. If so, he will be doing it in Beijing, before a domestic audience of up to a billion. Gretzky is credited with helping to grow the game of hockey in California, but Crosby could have a chance to do the same in China, an exponential difference in terms of scale. At a time when the game is growing internationally, Crosby is a figure known and seen worldwide.
When Gretzky passed to Lemieux for the overtime goal that won the 1987 Canada Cup, the International Ice Hockey Federation’s world tournaments at four different levels featured teams from 28 nations; in 2019, nearly twice as many nations — 52 —competed, and others are vying for the federation’s sign-off. Crosby is the face of the game; to an extent, he’s an ambassador — not a role he aggressively pursues, but that he has accepted. It seemed fitting that, when a Kenyan hockey team came to Canada in 2018, Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon skated with the novices in a pickup game — a bit of promotional wizardry engineered by Tim Hortons, one of the corporate interests that bought into Crosby Inc. on day one.
Think about Maurice Richard’s St. Patrick’s Day game in 1955 —the night of the Richard Riot. It didn’t play out as a nation watched. It was seen only by those in the Forum and became known through newspaper accounts, accompanied by grainy photos taken in the arena, and black-and-white newsreel footage. Contrast that with Crosby’s gold-medal goal at the Vancouver Olympics. Four out of five Canadians watched at least some part of the game. In the US, more than 26 million tuned in, the largest home audience since the Americans upset the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid — a bigger number than those generated by World Series games and the final of the NCAA basketball championship that year. When Crosby skated towards Ryan Miller in the US goal and shouted, “Hey Iggy,” he was heard around the world. And it lives on: YouTube hosts various video clips of the goal with more than a million views per.
However we feel about those greatest players from the 20th century, however much we respect their talent and character, we have experienced Sidney Crosby’s career more fully than any of them, and probably more than all of them combined. The entire world has been along for his ride.
Excerpted from Most Valuable by Gare Joyce. Copyright © 2019 Gare Joyce. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.