Forget the ill-conceived Guardian Project — Gary Bettman and Stan Lee have a tailor-made collaboration on their hands. I’m thinking a 64-page paperback graphic novel: The Death and Return of Sidney Crosby.
The most striking feature of the Conference Finals this year, to my mind, is the absence of brand-name players — especially surprising with cities like Los Angeles and New York in the fray. It’s partly the reflection of the brand of hockey — a defensive defenseman on a defense-first team, Dan Girardi, arguably the Rangers’ best skater, is closer to anonymous than a household name. Los Angeles’ most well-known names — Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter — all carry a connotation of ignominy. Phoenix remains the NHL’s witness protection program. And yes, the goalies are all good, but a face behind steel bars can only be so well known.
It’s a peculiarity endemic to this season. The NHL marketing department has put a lot of work into making Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin famous outside the sport, only to see little return on those players these past two years. Diehard fans often bemoan this perceived laziness from the league. There are other great players, after all. And with Crosby injured and Ovechkin’s powers drained by the specter of “Hunter Hockey,” writers were tripping over themselves to ordain the “new face of the NHL.”
And therein, the NHL seemingly has a new marketing opportunity. With the future of its two faces uncertain, maybe the NHL needs to very publicly open the floor to all challengers. When DC Comics’ sales start to sag, instead of creating new and interesting stories, they merely kill off a founding member of the Justice League and let supporting characters fight for his spot. They first and most notably did this to Superman — an event that made international headlines — only to bring him back from the dead in the cheesiest way possible. And after fan outrage at the resurrection subsided, the Death of Superman passed from farce to trope. Now whenever they need a boost in sales, they just repeat the trick with another beloved character.
Sidney Crosby’s 2011-12 season has all the makings of a classic comic book death. Consider:
The Rebranded Sidekick: When Superman bit it, Superboy threw on a leather jacket and called himself the Metropolis Kid, becoming the world’s first metrosexual superhuman. With Batman gone, his various sons took the names Robin, Red Hood, and Red Robin (creativity is apparently not a big emphasis in Robin training). On the Penguins sans Sid, Evgeni Malkin, second-line center, became Evgeni Malkin, presumptive league MVP. As long as he’s a Penguin, though, Malkin’s accomplishments will always be viewed through the lens of how Sid enabled him to do it — whether with his absences or his passes. It’s also hard to be the face of a league with a face only a mother could love.
The Alternative Hero: The hilariously-named John Henry Irons made a convincing early bid to become the new Superman. He was black and wore an all-steel suit, and DC pushed him pretty hard as a cooler alternative to Superman for a while. Claude Giroux made similarly strong early season claim to the crown. Sure, he was French-Canadian, gap-toothed, long-haired, and played for Philadelphia, but we looked passed these oddities toward his undeniable skill. He passed Crosby for the #1 spot the top-selling jersey list. And when Giroux squared off with the Penguins captain during their first round series, then leveled him en route to a goal in the deciding Game 6, it seemed like a torch had been passed. When the Flyers got bounced in the next round, though — Giroux watching from the press box — that narrative lost some steam.
The Agreeable Downgrade: When Dick Grayson assumed the role of Batman, something just didn’t look…right. He had all the training, all the skills, but he most definitely wasn’t Batman. There’s a stable of good Canadian boys, billed as the new Sid, that fit into this category: Taylor Hall, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos. You’re all great; just be yourselves.
The Anti-Hero: Chris Pronger would have been a logical choice here. Or maybe an enigmatic Russian? With all the backlash against thinly veiled Russophobic sentiments, the stage was certainly set for Alexander Ovechkin to make a convincing claim as the greatest hockey player in the world. Woops. Ovechkin’s gradual decent to being just good is arguably a worse fate than a soft-tissue neck injury. Maybe Shea Weber was making his bid here, when he gave Henrik Zetterberg the smack down? Is Shea Weber not the hero the NHL needs right now, but the one it deserves?
The Edgy Return: Blame it on the repeated blows to the head if you want, but Sidney “I don’t like them” Crosby returned as an evil version of himself. Long panned for being too sterile a personality to be the league’s poster boy, he soon found himself receiving the opposite complaint. Which is the worse look: back-from-the-dead Superman’s flow or Sid’s pathetic playoff ‘stache?
A final necessary element of the comic book death, however, is that, in the battle royale to replace Superman, no one really wins. Lots of people lose, but no one wins. Did anyone really usurp Sidney Crosby as the new face of the NHL? Even when he scored his 60th goal, Steven Stamkos couldn’t match the buzz of Crosby scoring 2 goals against the Islanders in his first game back from a concussion, and with a lingering broken back.
Besides the need to make a quick buck, a big motivating factor in killing Superman was the pressing need to keep him compelling in the age of anti-heroes. After he won the Stanley Cup, selling Sidney Crosby to a general sports audience seemingly had the Superman problem — he was the best, synonymous with hockey, but there was no central conflict. There was seemingly no struggle.
But that, in itself, has a hidden value. Superman is a standard — an ideal that other heroes trade upon. When you take him out of the equation, a supporting character can only rise to take his place if you lower the bar. He is the hero against which the more beloved anti-hero is defined. The various Robins are only interesting in how they relate to Batman.
Similarly, all those fans complaining about the over-coverage of Sidney Crosby for years would feel purposeless without Sid. Your favorite player is only under-marketed in relation to how much Sidney Crosby, a clearly superior player, is promoted.
It’s fun to imagine a hockey world without Sidney Crosby, postulate who should be his successor. But there’s also no clearer call for his return. He’s the title character. And now he’s (hopefully) got a cool story for the NHL to market again: a triumphant full season return.
**Chris Pronger image courtesy of BridgetDS @ Flickr**