Monday, June 22, 2009

The Venerable

“So, uh, I just wanted to ask, has anyone ever suggested that Crosby might be a bit of a diver?”

It’s a very late on Thursday night, or more accurately very early on Friday morning, and all over North America it is just before the end of the Stanley Cup Final, and my dad is asking me, very politely, if anyone else thinks Sidney Crosby dives.

It is to laugh. No, it is not to laugh, it is to guffaw, cackle, chortle and giggle, it is to break down in teary, mad hysterics. Everyone, nearly, thinks Sidney Crosby dives. They think he dives and whines and whimpers and goes home and cries like a little girl. In the annals of things of which Sidney Crosby has been accused lo these many years, diving is the alpha and the omega, the perennial complaint which resurfaces game after game, season after season, series after series to undermine his preeminence and subvert his talent. For if he were great, he would not- indeed, would not dare- to resort to theatrics in pursuit of power plays and, maybe, public sympathy.

So yes, I tell my father, who is new to hockey but of late doubtless knows it better than I, it has been suggested that Crosby is a bit of a diver.

The following Saturday morning, Taipei time, Sidney Crosby- diver, whiner, pussy, baby, not-as-good-as-Ovechkin, not-as-good-as-Malkin- wins the Stanley Cup.

In the unpredictably distant future, when the history of this era is written, it is likely that Sidney Crosby will be inseparable from his time. All great players emerge from a context, but some remain more contextual than others. Gretzky is transcendent, but he is also emblematic of the 80s, the Golden Age of Promiscuous Goal-Scoring; just as Richard is a metonym for the bloody classicism of the postwar decade. Similarly, Crosby is the ambivalent hero of the nascent 21st century NHL. Sprawling and cantankerous, overproduced and underappreciated, swimming in untold millions that might have shocked the last century’s robber-baron owners but can barely keep a body solvent in the current corporate marketplace, this is a League with deep troubles and wild aspirations. Crosby was the first draft pick of this new era. He was promoted, from the beginning and even before the beginning, as the Next One, which is to say, the Messiah. Sure, you qualify and moderate it and footnote it, but for a brief, eager time Crosby was nothing less than Hockey Jesus.

Why, exactly, we needed Hockey Jesus is not entirely clear. From what the elders tell me, during the long, cold, curling-and-basketball filled winter of 2004-2005, a sort of malingering discontent coalesced into a certainty: hockey, professional hockey, was broken. Not just financially, although that was the nominal reason for the stoppage, but aesthetically. Gradually, over an accumulation of years, it had become less thrilling than it was in memory- a slower, gentler game, defined by defensive strategy and swampy neutral-zone exchanges. A year without the NHL, rather than inspiring renewed devotion, gave both the fans and the powers-that-be too many long evenings to meditate on What Went Wrong.

First overall draft picks, along with UFAs, are probably the most overvalued players in hockey in any given season. Yes, there have been a good many first picks who’ve blossomed into legendary superstars, but more yet have turned out to be ordinary NHLers or something less. Teenagers, being teenagers and therefore in continuous flux, aren’t predictable, but on draft day all anyone sees is the highest potential. Crosby was one of the few, intoxicating, dream-inducing creatures whose highest potential was unquantifiable, so high that few dared to speak the limitations of it. Most players, when drafted, see their future described in technical terms: good hands, needs to work on his speed, sees the ice well, probable top-six forward. Crosby got different language: win Cups, lead teams, break records, save the NHL. These were not just the hopes for him, they were the expectations.

How many players, ever, in all the history of hockey in all the world, have entered the game on such a scale? Of whom, ever, have such great things been expected? Not just by the experts and specialists, but by nearly the entire television-watching, newspaper-reading, mildly-hockey-interested population? The pressure on Crosby has never simply been to play hockey well, it’s been to play hockey ideally, simultaneously inspiring renewed enthusiasm in the established fan base and reaching out to the uncourted millions.

When you consider the expectations, disappointment was inevitable. Early on, he did great things, but not nearly so great as the impossibilities that had been dreamt for him. He beat all of Mario’s franchise rookie records, became the youngest player ever to have a hundred point season, and the following year added several more youngest-ever achievement records, but none of that changed the overarching fact that the Penguins sucked. Not because of Sidney, of course, but it sounds like a compromise to admit that even Hockey Jesus needs time and teammates. But sometimes, I think, the disappointment hasn’t been so much with how he plays as with how he behaves.

The still-unfinished history of Sidney Crosby is also a history of ambiguously failed marketing attempts. Between the NHL, the corporate sponsors, and the multifarious media outlets, he’s been sold as everything from fresh-faced ingénue to barely-legal sex symbol. He’s stripped and shilled, been a lonely little boy and an unstoppable automaton, and it looks increasingly as though he’ll settle into the role of a supervillain, but none of the personae have ever really taken- he’s neither especially attractive nor especially nefarious, and tends to project an unvarying air of sincere, indifferent obligation in any public forum.

Indeed, over many years of practice, Crosby has perfected dullness. He has, I imagine, cultivated dullness as a Buddhist cultivates tranquility, in long hours of deep meditation he has peered into the heart of the Cosmic Dullness and grasped its secrets. He does not simply act dull but allows himself to become a conduit through which the sheer dullness at the core of being flows. In hundreds of interviews, thousands of profiles, to my knowledge not one single journalist has ever gotten anything that might be considered a revealing or colorful personal detail out of Sidney Crosby, not a speck of unanticipated emotion nor a syllable of original thought. Possibly he has them, somewhere deep in the bowels of Mario’s mansion, perhaps he has some lurking non-hockey passions or quirks, but if such exist they are so carefully protected that we will never know. The dullness is part, in a way, of the same uniform training and drilling that has made him the on-ice phenomena that he is, it is the necessary deterrent to all things who would distract him from the proper routines, the proper relationships, the proper focus on the game. His personality has become so down-to-earth it’s actually subterranean.

And if you wanted to get to the core of it, to finger the exact spot where Crosby lost the public’s adulation, it would be on this issue of personality. It’s not his fault, Sidney’s, that he happened to enter the League at the same moment as a comparable talent with a singularly unhockeyish charisma, but the comparisons will dog him until one or the other of them irreparably tears a tendon. Ovechkin is spectacular in the literal sense- he is a spectacle, a one-man show, a personality on a scale seldom seen in professional sports and almost never in the NHL. He dresses outrageously, flaunts his personal life, and charms damn near everyone in a fifty-mile radius with cheerful malapropisms- even on the ice. It is an accident of history that these two players happened to be coming through the League at nearly the same moment, but that accident inevitably frames the conversation as a zero-sum game: it’s always Crosby or Ovechkin, Crosby vs. Ovechkin, as though only one of them can be legitimately great.

Ovechkin is primordial, but Crosby is now, and it could be that the things we dislike about him are exactly the things we dislike about the contemporary NHL: the blandness, the commercialism, the expensive but tone-deaf packaging. He is the prodigy of the age and the superstar this time deserves, for he is so resolutely constructed, so rigorously disciplined in body and thought, that he is very nearly more product than person. But for all of that he has made of himself an excellent product.

I confess, I have no great love for Sidney Crosby, especially when he ventures onto the ice I think of as home. I have resented his skill and questioned his value, and mocked on more than one occasion his behavior. And until last week, that was (in some, cruel, indefinable sense) fair, it was… well, he is just a hockey player, and great hype deserves great incredulity. But although no hockey alchemist has yet discovered the philosopher’s stone that turns Next Ones into Great Ones, the Cup comes close, and although he has the same body, Crosby today is not the same player he was two weeks ago. It is a tenet of faith in this game that the Cup cannot be won unjustly, and there is some ineffable change that comes over a player who lifts it. The Cup makes a player into a Winner, permanently and inalienably, and no matter how many games he loses in the long years of the career ahead, he is still a Winner. When Sidney Crosby became a Winner, in this transcendent sense, he was 21 years old and the captain of his team, the youngest in history.

There is a point where one, if one loves hockey at all, has to stand back from the mundane, internecine nettling and backbiting of quotidian fanaticism, and stand in awe of a moment. We don’t have to do it often, as such moments are justly rare (far more rare then we realize, I think). When Sidney Crosby hoisted that great, silver-plated punchbowl, omens were fulfilled and that which was prophesied finally came to pass. 19 out of 20 hockey predictions on any given subject will turn out to be wrong; for dreamy, idealistic, messianic predictions, it’s likely something closer to 999 in a thousand, and most of the Next Ones we’ve been sold have turned into nothing more than good-ish hockey players. But Sidney Crosby is the authentic miracle, and even if this meteoric rise is the only wonder he ever works for us, it is wonder enough to earn veneration.

Paradoxically, by the many fans outside of Pittsburgh, Crosby will likely be hated now more than ever, but then again, all the stars were hated by multitudes in their day. The insults are, ultimately, rationalizations, an ex-post-facto justification of jealousy- that he is not on our team, yes, but also that most of us will never be so good at anything in our lives as he is at hockey. It is a unique form of hubris that we find it easy to insult the fortitude, courage, and character of a man who has worked harder and suffered more for something than any of us- even a good many hockey players- can rightly understand, just because he questions the same calls that most of us do in any given game, or because in our expert opinion he slid down a little to easily on that hook. Step back, for even half as second, and it is utterly and indefensibly ridiculous that we think such criticisms are significant in the face of what is, by any measure, preternatural talent.

So yes, he is sometimes dull and sometimes irritating, perpetually overexposed and perhaps never quite as good as what was imagined, but it is an ethical obligation to bear witness to truth, and the truth is this: Sidney Crosby is, at the age of 21, venerable.

Whether or not he dives.


DarkoV said...


I think the stage for Mr. Crosby was set by the King of the Whiners and High Expectations, Mr. Eric Lindros (and his connected-to-his-hip mother and father). Philly's still reeling (they could have had Joe Sakic!)

E said...

i'm actually curious about the process that goes into anointing 'next ones'- at what point, and for what reason, do these wild expectations start to kick in for some kids? in my time, crosby has definitely been the preeminent example, but for a while tavares looked like he was getting pegged for the same trajectory. i've heard of earlier examples (i.e. lindros), but how far back does it go? does it predate gretzky? and if not (as i suspect), is it more a product of him, since he demonstrated that a teenager could be capable of nearly instantaneous miracles, or of the broader, faster media cycle?

Scott said...

Wonderful writing as always. Thanks E.

As for the "The Next One" label, I'm pretty sure it's a play on Gretzky's "The Great One" moniker. As such, I doubt strongly that it predates Gretzky. I remember the label being used for Lindros, Crosby and Tavares by various folks but there may be others.

Mr. Mills said...

E: Your great articles keep me checking the site often and your perspective always provides food for thought. This latest piece had me nodding my head with the reasonable and rational approach to discussing Crosby's persona, performance and place in the game to date. But something about the title (and how that might direct us to approach the discussion of superstars) just didn't sit right. So, below is the crank should you feel so inclined.

Given the rumoured character flaws (diver, scripted/dull/uninspired personality) and the lack of any religious connection could we perhaps avoid hyperbole and stick to descriptors like amazing talent, once in a generation skill, or something of that sort?

I hate to be that guy, but geeze, could we maybe not equate physical ability with moral standing through the use of grandiose titles? An ethical imperative to stand witness to the truth does not imply an obligation to make the truth more ethical.

The NHL has awards and rankings for players of skill. Perhaps M.V.P, Calder, etc. might be more apropos than terms normally reserved for Archdeacons or individuals who have obtained the first degree of sanctity. (I suppose I would be willing to retract my objection if he managed to grow hockey in the desert {beatification} or managed to deliver a greater t.v. market share than nascar {Canonization}).

Crank finished. Sorry, had to get that off my chest.

E said...

scott- but prior to gretzky, was there a habit of dubbing new draftees (or signees, or otherwise untested players) The Next (Morenz, Howe, Orr, or what-have-you)? what's the earliest case of extreme, world-shifting fantabulousness expected from an 18-year-old?

mr. mills- worry not, i take no offense to crankishness. i see your point, and it's worth discussion. the fact is that hockey, and sports in general, are filled with instances of quasi-religious terminology and hyperbolic metaphor. you're going to find references to god and miracles and holiness all over the writing about this sport- some serious, some sarcastic, many somewhere in between. so although my choice of words was unconventional, i didn't see the use of 'venerable' as necessarily out of line. perhaps it should be, but... well, at least i've never used the term 'jesus price'.

additionally, though, i'd like to reassert that i don't really believe that diving or being dull are character flaws, especially not if we are judging on the scale of all humanity. all indications thus far are that crosby's moral standing as a human being is very nearly as good as any hockey player's can be...

Grunthos said...

"at what point, and for what reason, do these wild expectations start to kick in for some kids?"

I think you're looking at three different phenomena, piggybacking on each other.

1) All sports are sensitive to newcomers who actually perform well at the highest level, and players who enter a top-flight league with a bang will have endless superlatives heaped upon them. This is true for those who were tracked earlier, but it is even more true for the surprises, the Mark Fidryches, the ones that nobody knew could be that good, even for a little while.

2) But there is also a conservation of hype. Some column inches must be filled, every year, with speculations about future greatness. Like ants, sportswriters will settle on young talents written about by other sportswriters, and inevitably some prospect will achieve critical mass in this regard and become *the* point of discussion for little while, usually until they have played a full year in the top league, at which point they can no longer be considered "hype about the league's unknown future," and the ants follow another pheromone trail to a new subject. This is distinct from point 3 below, in that the collective search is for the most interesting (writable) talent, not necessarily the most complete talent. Bo Jackson will do just as well as, in fact better than, Peyton Manning, because interesting character helps the writers.

(I think the earliest age at which points 1 and 2 are operational is probably a predictable function of two things: the articulation of the team sport in question, i.e. how many tiers, how much attention is paid to the lower tiers, how much total money and attention flows into the sport, etc.; and the state of communications technology, with radio being insufficient to carry much buzz at all on its own, TV bringing some capacity but limited by centralization, and information-age media now drastically increasing our ability to actually see and evaluate teenagers in 5th-tier developmental leagues halfway around the world.)

3. And then there is the collective "need" of the sport. Does the top league lack compelling stars who are competing for "best-ever" titles? Has a storied team been held out of trophy contention by the absence of a particular talent? If so, then we will see Kobe Bryant, Freddy Adu, Tiger Woods/Michelle Wie, or Crosby, kids who looked good at a very early age and are "pushed" to center stage because the current occupants of said stage aren't suffciently dominant. Here, personality is irrelevant. The sport needs the transcendant skill, the breathtaking athletic display, the lack of weaknesses.

I think your question is really about point 3, and I think your instinct is correct, that it wasn't until television was a ubiquitous element in everyone's home and sports broadcasting had moved from niche to mainstay that sufficient attention could be lavished on a kid who hadn't proved a damned thing yet.

Matthew said...

As far as I know the term originated after Gretzky--"The Next One" implies "The Previous One", and that previous one is invariably Gretzky--but Gretzky was compared in his time to Phil Esposito, and Lemieux, Lindros, Kariya, Crosby, and Tavares to Gretzky. I've even heard the term applied to the improbably named Martin Frk, a 16 year old Czech forward who will supposedly be the first overall selection in the 2012 draft. The fact that there have been so many "next ones", all of them apparently successors of Gretzky, bodes poorly for any teenager unfortunate enough to be given that label.

As for Crosby's apparent lack of a personality, I remember hearing an interview with one of his teammates who claimed that Crosby had memorized entire episodes of the TV show Friends. That's about the only thing I've ever heard about him that didn't relate directly to hockey.