Fast forward 15 years to 2007. Mario Lemieux has since retired, and his torch as the game's best player has ironically been passed to a young man on the franchise he currently owns. Sidney Crosby was drafted first overall by the Penguins on July 30, 2005, a major break for a franchise with a still uncertain future. The parallels between Lemieux and Crosby are many and they are well documented. But another parallel has cropped up since Crosby entered the league last season, and it rekindles the "garage league" comment in a big way.
There is growing sentiment around hockey circles that our beloved #87 embellishes hits and "whines" to the refs a bit too much. Mind you that all of these circles are outside of the city of Pittsburgh, but they exist nonetheless.
So when, if I may ask, does Crosby embellish? When Maxim Lapierre drove the butt-end of his stick into Crosby's check on the opening faceoff against Montreal? When Canadien Francis Bouillon gave Sid a high-stick in the 3rd period on Sunday? When Jason Blake speared him at the end of the Islanders game a few weeks ago?
The real root of things like Crosby hearing chants of "Faker, Faker" when he plays in Montreal (or any other city, for that matter) are simple: fans are incredibly jealous that Crosby is not on their team. But it doesn't stop there.
Not only are fans jealous, but I truly believe there is a large percentage of opposing players and referees who envy his standing within the game. Players take cheap shots. Referees look the other way and don't call penalties. The league does little to discourage future incidents. Scrubs like Canadiens winger Aaron Downey have the nerve to tell Crosby "Agitating is part of my game. I told him that if you're going to be a superstar in this league, you shouldn't be acting like that."
Mind you that Aaron Downey is a 32-year old enforcer with one goal this season, seven goals in 180 career NHL games. His TSN.ca profile gives this synopsis of his play: "Lacks the required skills to be anything more than a role player at the NHL level. Is not often on the winning side of fights." Yep, he's definitely qualified to tell Sidney Crosby how to act like a superstar in the NHL.
If lowlife no-talents like Downey want to hate on Crosby, that's fine. He has that right. But where is the NHL in all of this? Do they want the face of their league being pushed around by low-end tough guys? Is this a good business model for the success of a still struggling sport?
Imagine Michael Jordan being clotheslined every time he went up for a dunk. Imagine Peyton Manning having his neck twisted after the whistle blew. Imagine Albert Pujols being drilled with a fastball in the ribs every time he came to bat. This is what's happening to Sidney Crosby on a regular basis. He's being abused by NHL players and the league has so far responded with a collective sigh of apathy, defending their referees at every chance they get.
The NHL is a garage league because it's too interested in defending their referees and not interested enough in defending the actual product that fans are paying for. Don't misinterpret the message: I am not suggesting there should be a seperate set of rules for Crosby. But you at least have to discourage this nonsense from happening on a regular basis. Unless the NHL wants Crosby to eventually get injured and have to sit out. Which I think they may want sometimes, the way they treat Sid. I'm sorry, but a $1,000 fine to Jason Blake for spearing the most prominent player in the game is not going to discourage anything. Consider this: Tyrus Thomas just got fined $10,000 by the Bulls for simply saying he was only participating in the dunk contest for the prize money!
The league wants to believe that the players will police themselves, and recently some Pens fans have wondered aloud if they should pick up an enforcer. I think that's a bad idea for three reasons:
1. When you have an enforcer, other players excuse themselves of the duty of protecting each other. Everyone is looking at the Bob Probert type and waiting for him to even the score for a big hit. The way the Penguins are set up now, you never know who the big hit will come from. I would think that's scarier for an opponent.
2. The Pens have a bad habit of picking up enforcers who don't enforce. For example, as soon as Andre Roy splashed onto the scene, he forgot his role as tough guy and tried to become a scorer. Must be something about the uniform.
3. The Penguins are too good of a team to give up a roster spot to a one-dimensional goon. It's just not a luxury they can afford in a tight playoff race.
With that being said, Pens coach Michel Therrien has to be a little smarter about the situations he's putting Crosby in. For instance, in Tuesday night's game, the Penguins are up 4-1 over Nashville with 30 seconds left in the game. They had a power play. Who is on the ice? Crosby and Malkin. What could we possibly gain by having Crosby and Malkin on the ice with 30 seconds to go? Winning 4-1 counts just as much as winning 5-1. This isn't the BCS; we're not looking for style points. If Crosby wasn't on the ice against the Islanders with the game already decided, he wouldn't have had the chance to be speared by Jason Blake.
Therrien has to be a little less naive and a little more street smart in these situations. Don't be so pollyanish and believe that there's no chance of danger. You wouldn't walk down a dark alley in a bad neighborhood if you didn't have to, right? Why put yourself in a situation of possible danger when it's not necessary? Therrien should think along those lines. Don't walk down the dark alley. Teams are going to take cheap shots at Crosby, especially after the game has been decided. Let's give the kid a seat for the night if the game is in hand and cut off these opportunities for goonism at the pass. And after that game is over, make sure to close the garage door. The NHL will thank you.