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A Season with Sidney Crosby and the New NHL
By Shawna Richer
Triumph Books Copyright © 2006 Shawna Richer
All rights reserved.
It was a great day for hockey.
The National Hockey League entry draft held July 30, 2005, on a warm summer afternoon in downtown Ottawa was the most celebrated and significant selection day held in several decades. At the same time, it was entirely anti-climactic.
Hastily arranged after the nhl owners and players reached a deal to end an acrimonious 310-day lockout that forced cancellation of the 2004-2005 season, the draft starred the most desirable young hockey player to come along since Mario Lemieux arrived on the scene in 1984. A teenaged boy from a small village on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia was a lock to be the number one pick.
His name was Sidney Crosby. He had tousled dark hair and an abundant cowlick, bee-stung lips, a generous, toothy grin, and in most lights he resembled exactly what he was – a boy still sixteen days shy of his eighteenth birthday. For someone who had not yet played a single shift of professional hockey, he was already remarkably famous.
Several seasons before the ugly labour dispute shut down Canada's beloved pastime, the 2005 nhl draft became billed as the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes. For years, his childhood scoring prowess had been widely known throughout the Maritimes. He was thrust into the national spotlight at the age of fourteen after a remarkable mvp performance in what was then called the Air Canada Cup, the country's championship tournament for midget-aged players, in April 2002. Crosby went on to set records in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Rimouski Oceanic – his 135 points as a sixteen-year-old was the most by a player that age in the Quebec league's history and second in Canadian Hockey League history, behind only Wayne Gretzky's 182 points with Sault Ste. Marie in 1977-1978. In what had become the most often repeated tale of his young life so far, Crosby's reputation was bolstered even further when Gretzky himself told a sportswriter with the Arizona Republic that the Canadian youngster was the only player he had ever seen who had a shot at breaking his own numerous nhl scoring records.
The draft order had been set a week earlier, but even before that Crosby had eagerly promised to don the sweater of whichever team selected him. That he would play in the nhl was a highly anticipated certainty, one of the few things about the league's return to action that autumn that was predictable. Even more than the ratification of the collective bargaining agreement by the National Hockey League Players' Association and its subsequent unanimous acceptance by the league's thirty owners, this draft marked the return of hockey and the birth of the nhl's renaissance. Sidney's arrival in the nhl didn't just coincide with hockey's homecoming, it more or less launched it.
The league was desperately in need of a saviour, a gifted, gracious poster boy who could help repair the widespread damage caused by the previous season's strike and the flood of negative publicity that ensued. Crosby had already been christened the Next One, just as several other players, chiefly Eric Lindros and Joe Thornton, had been at one time. But already Crosby seemed different from those who had come before. The easy play on Gretzky's nickname, the Great One, came by both timing and Crosby's extraordinary hockey gifts – unarguably more profound than Lindros's or Thornton's – which were obvious at every previous level of competition. He had uncommon lower-body strength and an uncanny scoring touch, remarkable vision and playmaking abilities that channelled Gretzky himself. Crosby was also telegenic and almost unbelievably poised for a teenager; he wanted the responsibility the nhl had unofficially foisted upon him. Like so few up-and-coming hockey stars who had come this way before, Crosby wanted to be the guy, the game's next ambassador. Thegame needed a kid like him. With the lockout ending so suddenly a few weeks earlier – Crosby had given thought to playing in Europe if the dispute had continued into another season – there hadn't been time for much of a courtship. But it hardly seemed necessary. Shotgun or not, it was the perfect marriage.
In an irony that was irresistible to fans, the league, and the writers and broadcasters who covered the sport, Crosby was to be chosen by the Pittsburgh Penguins, just as Mario Lemieux, the last young hockey player to cause so much fuss, had been twenty-one years earlier.
July 22, 2005, was a great day for the Penguins, and as their late Stanley Cup–winning coach "Badger" Bob Johnson used to declare, "It was a great day for hockey."
The Penguins, the nhl's worst franchise the last time the league played, had been blessed by, of all things, a simple, indiscriminate lottery ball.
I listened to the nhl draft lottery on the radio as I drove through a late afternoon nor'easter home to Halifax from the Miramichi region of New Brunswick, where I had been on assignment. It was compelling theatre. The lottery, with forty-eight balls in all, was weighted based on each team's record and draft order from previous seasons. It offered the Penguins, New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Buffalo Sabres the best chances of winning the right to draft Crosby with three balls each in the bin. Ten other teams had two balls each while the rest, including the Tampa Bay Lightning, Stanley Cup winners in 2004, each had just one ball to dream on.
The lottery was conducted in a closed room in a midtown Manhattan hotel. As Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly watched over the lottery itself, Commissioner Gary Bettman addressed reporters and tidied up some official business on a small set nearby, announcing that the collective bargaining agreement had been accepted by the nhl board of governors and explaining some of the new rules. "When you look back in a year, five, ten, this era in history will be viewed as a pivotal point in time," Bettman said. "It's the time we could begin to move forward, finally in an effective way where the game could be as good as it could be. This will probably be a seminal moment." When the balls finished dropping, Bettman theatrically read the picks in descending order.
It was one of the most entertaining bits of live news drama I had witnessed in some time. Would Crosby, who grew up worshipping the Montreal Canadiens because they drafted his father, Troy, as a goaltender back in 1984, end up a Hab, his sentimental preference? Or would he be won by a struggling southern franchise that could use a charismatic star to sell the game in a non-traditional hockey market? Would he – heaven forbid – end up a Maple Leaf? Or would he land in New York, where it was felt by many league and marketing folks that he could have the greatest immediate impact on promoting the game in the United States?
In Canada, fans had been angered by the lockout – an Ipsos-Reid poll and mountains of anecdotal evidence found they blamed the stalemate and lost season on the players almost two-to-one over the owners. Truth be told, fans' dismay had been simmering for some time, thanks to escalating player salaries – the league lost $273 million in 2002-2003, according to a study commissioned by the nhl – enormously expensive ticket prices, and a dearth of entertaining play on the ice. The game had become dominated by clutching and grabbing and the deadly dull defensive trap. The nhl was slow and tedious, almost unbearable to watch, and fans were tuning out. The lockout was the last straw for some, even as it turned out to be the best thing to happen to the game. The lockout that hurt so many and destroyed so much may well have saved hockey.
In the months the nhl was gone, letters-to-the-editor pages in newspapers across Canada were filled with scorn, indifference, and pledges to ignore the great game should it ever return. Emotions ranged from disgust over what was seen as abject greed by rich players and even wealthier owners to ambivalence over the kind of product the nhl had on offer. Although it was the only professional sports league on the planet to lose an entire season to a labour dispute, that the nhl stopped playing for a year barely registered in most of the United States, where hockey had been a distant fourth professional sport in many cities, after baseball, football, and basketball, with only a fringe following in less traditional hockey markets, behind even nascar.
"At the end of the day, everybody lost," Wayne Gretzky, managing partner and coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, said at the time. "We almost crippled our industry. It was very disappointing what happened. For everyone to say 'all right, let's forgive and forget, let's move forward,' that's all fine and good but it's a lot easier said than done. It's going to take a long time. It's going to take a lot of hard work.
"We disappointed a lot of people and I don't mean the average fan. I'm talking about tv partnerships, corporate partnerships, the fan, the guy who goes to one or two games a year with his son. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. It's not going to all change and be nice overnight."
Yet in Canada, when the news broke on July 13 that the league and players' association had reached an agreement and the lockout was about to end, it felt as though an entire nation exhaled. For the most part, Canadians wanted the nhl back and were willing to give the new-look league, with its rule changes and salary cap and commitment to parity and the Olympics, the benefit of the doubt. If the new nhl was going to begin to succeed, the league needed fans' forgiveness. In Canada at least, it looked as though they would get it.
It was a brilliant marketing move on the nhl's part to broadcast the draft lottery on television and radio in Canada and via espn News on tv and satellite radio in the United States. The hour-long event turned out to be a harbinger of the captivating and entertaining season that ultimately unfolded. The nhl had not offered a show worth tuning in to since the Lightning beat the Calgary Flames in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final on June 7, 2004.
With the Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, and Sabres ahead of the game with the most balls in the lottery,Bettman began unsealing the envelopes.
As he announced the teams that would miss their chance to land the seventeen-year-old rising star, I held my breath a bit. I had written about Crosby during the World Junior tournament the previous winter. I spent an afternoon with his parents, Troy and Trina, at their home the weekend before Christmas 2004 for a story on his childhood that ran in the Globe and Mail during the tournament that was played in North Dakota and saw the Canadians win gold for the first time since 1997. And I had seen him play as a junior whenever the Rimouski Oceanic visited the Halifax Mooseheads; Crosby had six points on one of the nights I watched. It was impossible not to root for him to land somewhere that would be good for him and good for hockey. Not Toronto, where the daily scrutiny of the Maple Leafs rivalled that of the Prime Minister's Office and could crush a young player. And not Nashville, where his prodigious talents might not be appreciated. And not San José, where the four-hour time difference and revamped, unbalanced schedule meant his fellow Nova Scotians might never get to watch him play on television.
Anticipation grew as Bettman revealed the losers. Infitting fate, the Tampa Bay Lightning fell dead last. Then the Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues, New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, and Toronto Maple Leafs, in twentieth place. Then the Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres, San José Sharks, and Los Angeles Kings, in tenth spot. Finally came the Vancouver Canucks, Ottawa Senators, Atlanta Thrashers, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens at fifth spot, Minnesota Wild, and Carolina Hurricanes.
As ten teams were ruled out, tsn, the national sports network reporting live from Cole Harbour, cut live to the Crosby family rec room for the young man's reaction. It was unprecedented coverage for a draft lottery. Satellite trucks and a half-dozen reporters idled on the Crosbys' quiet neighbourhood crescent.
On the radio the suspense played wonderfully. With the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Mighty Ducks the only two teams remaining, Bettman paused a few beats before divulging that the first overall pick would go to the Penguins, the team that, considering results, the standings, and general karma, certainly deserved it most.
Craig Patrick, the club's long-time general manager, who built consecutive Stanley Cup championship clubs around Lemieux in 1991 and 1992, had stepped into St. Patrick's Cathedral, the storied midtown church, with a four-leaf clover in his pocket on the way to the lottery to pray for the Penguins' chances. Whether his appeals were heard by a higher power is impossible to say, but the pit stop certainly didn't hurt. The Penguins had landed Sidney Crosby.
In so many ways the team seemed the perfect destination. Crosby had already met and trained with owner and Hall of Fame centre Mario Lemieux the previous summer, and his parents had been charmed by both Lemieux and his mother, Pierrette.
It was a hockey coupling that had both league and media salivating – a seasoned lifelong member of the Penguins in the twilight of a legendary career on the same team and perhaps even the same line (and as it would turn out, the same house) alongside the fresh face of the new nhl, a kid who seemed destined for a tremendous, record-setting career of his own.
Pittsburgh was also an old-school hockey city with smart, knowledgeable fans, a funky, albeit dilapidated arena that was the oldest in the league, and a history, though fading with each passing season, of winning championships. Through recent years the Penguins had found it impossible to compete against richer and larger-market teams, and their desperate need to replace Mellon Arena – affectionately known as the Igloo for its domed shape and tenants – with a modern venue that would allow the team to increase revenues and ensure they remained in Pittsburgh made Crosby an almost necessary acquisition. The nhl hoped his arrival would jump-start interest in an entire league, helping to sell and transform the game, but the team was counting on Crosby to have far-reaching repercussions that went beyond simply winning hockey games.
With the drop of a white lottery ball, a seismic shift occurred in the hockey universe. Several days after winning the rights to draft Crosby, Lemieux, who had put the Penguins up for sale, pulled the team off the market and kicked into high gear a campaign to build a new arena. It was a good day for hockey, to be sure. And if good things were to happen in this rust belt city with its nhl team on the brink, this season would be the time and Crosby would be the catalyst.
When the nhl last played in 2003-2004, the Penguinsfinished last in the standings with just twenty-three wins. They also ranked last overall in attendance, with an average of just 11,877 fans coming to each game. After winning two Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, the club had been in bankruptcy court. They saw their star player and owner, Lemieux, successfully battle Hodgkin's disease, save the franchise by converting twenty-six million dollars in owed salary to equity in the team, retire and un-retire, and jettison some of the team's top talent – including Czech stars Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka – to slash payroll. Fan interest waned and so had Lemieux's interest. He had been ready to unload the team that had been his life's work, even if it meant new owners might uproot it from Pittsburgh. With Sidney Crosby in town, that was no longer the case. Lemieux's passion was rekindled. All the teenager had to do now was live up to the hype.
And all the nhl had to do was make good on its promise to put a better product on the ice. The league hoped this would come largely as a result of the rule changes. The players would have to do their part by embracing them and adapting.
Excerpted from The Kid by Shawna Richer. Copyright © 2006 Shawna Richer. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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