“He’s the perfect leader… He plays hard at both ends of the ice… He makes everyone on his team better… The perfect captain.” – NHL on NBC analyst Pierre McGuire during Game 3 of the Penguins-Flyers series.
Think he’s talking about Sidney Crosby?
Not a chance. That ship sailed a long time ago, and has since been attacked by Somali pirates.
The above quote is just a sample of the three hour bromancing of Philadelphia’s 24-year-old captain Mike Richards by the NBC broadcasting team. McGuire and color-commentator (and former Pens coach) Eddie Olczyk gushed with respect and adoration. In the third period, Olczyk showered Richards with compliments over a video montage of him (1) being checked, then falling over; (2) making a pass; and (3) congratulating a teammate on scoring.
Crosby’s name was rarely mentioned in the broadcast – usually in conjuntion with the sentiment that Richards was responsbile for shutting him down (Spoiler alert: he wasn’t responsible. Most of the game, Richards was matched up against Malkin, who scored two goals.)
This is a big change from last season, when NBC prominently featured an online “Crosby Cam” that isolated Sid’s every move, and constantly had the Penguins’ captain mic’ed up. The whole spectacle was borderline voyeuristic. Everyone either loved Sid the Kid, or was being forced to love him.
Somewhere along the line, NBC wised up. Some executive producer or big-wig at the network was watching one of the weekend games between the Pens and the Capitals, or Rangers, or Flyers, and in the midst of an organ-assisted Cros-by Sucks chorus, they thought – “Hey, wait a minute. Why are we fighting against this current of hatred when we can be swimming with it?”
NBC thinks of the Crosby “brand” as an asset.
Corporations like NBC are constantly thinking of how they can best utilize their resources. No use selling Crosby as the league’s golden boy if the soundtrack for every Penguins’ road game was going to be a chrous of boos every time he touched the puck. But as the NHL’s only North American-born household name, the network still had to use him.
Thus, Sid the Heel was born.
A “heel” is jargon in the world of professional wrestling for a bad guy. A ne’er-do-well. A Supervillain that fans come to see hit repeatedly over the head with a steel chair.
The narrative for the Penguins-Flyers series, and possibly the rest of Crosby’s career has been set: Sid is the guy you love to hate, and consequently, Richards is the soft-spoken, underdog, babyfaced hero. Period, end of story, and if you’re still on the fence, the NBC broadcasters will show you the light some with subtle propaganda, like these gems from Game 3:
“Richards is a quiet leader.”
“…best young captain in the game.”
“He doesn’t want the limelight or the credit.”
“Richards went over to the officials to have a discussion about that last (penalty) call.”
No word if he brought tea and crumpets to the discussion. The implication in the never-ending praise for Richards’ leadership is this: He’s not like Crosby. He doesn’t whine to officials, he holds a polite discourse. He tucks his teammates in bed at night. His composure is unflappable.
Yet when the infallible Richards got lazy at the end of the first period and left a passing lane in front of the net wide open for Evgeni Malkin’s first goal, somehow the NBC announcers forgot to mention it. Richards, reacting to his mistake, swiped angrily at the puck as it bounced out of the net. Later, he took a foolish slashing penality on Malkin at mid-ice that could have let the Penguins right back into the game. Both McGuire and Olczyk channeled their inner Michel Therrien and said the call was “soft.”
To be fair, Richards finished the season plus 22, while Crosby only finished plus 3. Plus-minus measures the team goal differential when a specific player is on the ice, not counting power plays. Richards is a strong-to-exceptional player on both ends of the ice, and one of the top ten young talents in the game.
However, Crosby finished the season with 20 more assists, and 23 more points overall than the so-called “best young captain in the game.” You’re thinking, doesn’t that prove that Sid’s an unselfish leader too?
Oh, you thought this was about statistics and rational thinking? No, sorry. This is about advertising. This is about theater. There’s a reason that the Penguins play in front of capacity crowds when they go on the road. People don’t pay $75 a ticket to witness the intelligence, vision and grace of Sidney Crosby. They come to tell him that he sucks. They want to see him maimed. They want to see the NHL’s formerly annointed golden boy fail.
Finally, after three years of NBC trying to sell a national audience on a Sidney Crosby cult of personality, they realized that all of their promos, commercials and interviews with The Kid pushed the public in the opposite direction. The media’s overexposure, combined with a few isolated acts of frustration by Crosby himself, took the shine off of his reputation.
As hard as it is to stomach, Sidney Crosby is the bad guy. You, as a Penguins fan, root for the villian. Every time you pull on your #87 sweater, it’s like rooting for Jack Ripper to blow up the world in Dr. Strangelove. Were you bummed out when The Joker’s plan to blow up the boat full of civilians was foiled in The Dark Knight? You must be a Crosby fan.
Do you hate puppies? Crosby fan.
You might as well embrace it. And Sid should, too. From the age of 18, he fulfilled every media request the NHL put in front of him. With a bouquet of microphones in his face night in and night out, he said all the right things, never criticizing his teammates or coaches, even when he was stuck with second-rate wingers and an aloof head coach that his teammates had already given up on. And still, despite all the functions and events the league saddled him with, he set aside time to volunteer at local hospitals. He delivered season-tickets to fans’ doorsteps.
How does the national hockey media repay him? By perpetuating the myth that he’s a selfish crybaby.
Crosby, at 21, has every right to drop the humility, and drop the gloves on a whim, without regard for his PR-polished image. If it’s his fate to be typcast as the villain, so be it. Because if he develops the kind of cut-throat competitive edge that Michael Jordan developed after being phyically abused by opponents early in his career, look out. Crosby won’t be able to hear any of the media criticism over the din of a Stanley Cup Parade.
And a week from now, Mike Richards might be the kindest, gentlest, most handsome, team-oriented, selfless captain ever to grace the frozen ponds of the National Hockey League.
But I hope he has a nice tee shot too, because he’ll be golfing all spring.