When I heard Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby would miss the All-Star Game (and many more games after that) with a severe ankle sprain, I actually felt sorry for the folks at the NHL.
I mean, here’s hockey’s most-hyped player, the face that launched a thousand sponsorships, going down at one of the most inopportune times. Short of a career-ending injury to a marquee player just entering his prime, a league’s bad luck doesn’t get much worse than that.
Nevertheless, as with just about every crisis to hit them, the NHL isn’t completely blame-free in regards to their current conundrum. In fact, there’s a crucial lesson to come out of Crosby’s unfortunate absence.
That lesson involves a lot of eggs, and a single basket.
Indeed, the body blow the NHL suffers when its biggest star is sidelined only underscores the stark lack of the league’s properly-promoted personas. Crosby may have the skills, drive and pedigree to carry the torch, but he can’t and shouldn’t be expected to shoulder the load all by his lonesome.
Other pro sports leagues have known this for some time. Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal have been the most easily-recognized names involved with the National Basketball Association over the course of the last decade, but commissioner David Stern was wise enough to cast the spotlight on more players than just those two. Hence, even non-NBA fans have a general awareness of who’s being discussed when the names “Kobe” and “LeBron” are raised in conversation.
Similarly, the National Football League understood their business enough to create cults of personality around a number of its players. The list of household NFL names usually is topped by quarterbacks, but isn’t limited to those that play the position, as evidenced by the likes of receivers Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, and defensive menaces such as Lawrence Taylor and Brian Urlacher.
The NHL? Well, they want fans to remember Crosby, Alex Ovechkin (but only once his English is completely up to snuff), and…um, have we mentioned Crosby already?
In fairness, the lack of widely-known hockey icons hasn’t always been solely the fault of commissioner Gary Bettman and/or team owners. For as long as any observer can remember, the players themselves have been content to sit back in the shadows and play the modesty card while other “sports” like poker and X-Games usurped the NHL in TV ratings and editorial departments.
Future Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch is a perfect example. A quiet man by nature, Leetch – who will have his number retired by the New York Rangers in a ceremony Thursday night – was easily the most elusive, reclusive NHL star I’ve ever tried to interview.
In attempting simply to acquire Leetch’s phone number for a half-hour interview one summer, I felt like I had been charged with the task of locating the bastard child of the title character from the Where’s Waldo? book series and Marlene Dietrich. I never did get through to the guy – though, judging by the content of some of Leetch’s interviews over his career, it wasn’t as if I would’ve hit the quote jackpot even if I did.
Leetch isn’t the NHL’s only superior hider, though. From Ed Belfour to Owen Nolan to Paul Kariya, the list of high-profile players more than a little reticent to step in front of cameras and microphones is as long as Mike Richards’ contract.
Now, the re-jigged NHL Players’ Association is saying all the right things about correcting the problem, and if the only thing new executive director Paul Kelly convinces his constituents to do is become more comfortable with the concept and benefits of self-promotion, his legacy will be a positive one.
But Kelly and the NHL have to hurry. A sport only gets so many opportunities to sell itself – and those who play it – before it gets shunted aside to the remainder bins of pop culture.
It’s not too late, but as Bob Dylan sang, it’s getting there.
Adam Proteau’s Screen Shots appears every Thursday only on thehockeynews.com. Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can send him a comment or question through our Ask Adam feature.
Can’t get enough Adam? Subscribe to The Hockey News to get the column Proteau Type delivered to you every issue.