Crosby Takes Charge
A SPRING groundbreaking is scheduled for an 18,500-seat arena in Pittsburgh, and regardless of which company pays for the right to slap its name on the new building, the rink should be called The House That Sid Built.
And when it opens in 2010, the NHL just might be The League That Sid Rebuilt.
With apologies to Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier, Sidney Crosby was hockey's best player in 2007 even though he didn't turn 20 until Aug. 7. He had a league-high 120 points and won the Hart Trophy last season before being named the Penguins' captain, the youngest NHL player to have the honor; yes, the young man and the C.
But you might not be aware of some other numbers, the so-called Sidney Effect. Crosby's Penguins played to 96% of capacity in their 41 road games in 2006--07, typically exceeding the home team's average attendance. When the Penguins were on NBC, ratings were up 33%, an increase of about 338,000 households over non-Pittsburgh games. Versus, the NHL's subterranean cable partner, had a 50% bump for Penguins games, about 80,000 extra homes. While the Penguins ice a dynamic team, most of those people—and this is an educated guess—were not lured by winger Colby Armstrong.
The Sidney Effect has been even more dramatic in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins will most likely sell out every game this season, something that never happened during Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh tenure, not even during the Stanley Cup seasons of 1990--91 and '91--92. And Penguins ratings on Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh are the highest in the chain for NHL and NBA teams.
Crosby mixes competitiveness—Sid is vicious—with innate charm. He remains the kind of guy you'd want to bring home to meet your daughter ... and not just because he signed a five-year extension that pays $8.7 million annually. Crosby, who has endorsement deals with PepsiCo, Upper Deck, Telus and Tim Horton's, and a five-year contract with Reebok, recently finished a Gatorade commercial that will air in the U.S., making him the first NHL player to do a national TV ad since Wayne Gretzky.
The Crosby Show, inching toward prime time.
New Duds: A Dud
THE NHL rolled out its redesigned uniforms (excuse us, "uniform systems") at the All-Star Game and then implemented them leaguewide for the 2007--08 season. The Reebok outfits, form-fitting and made of a newly developed synthetic material both lighter and more water-repellent than the previous uniforms, were a ballyhooed mix of science (9% more aerodynamic!) and marketing. But while Reebok had tested them on NHL teams, they'd done the testing only in practice. Within weeks of the start of this season players were complaining to the league that the moisture-wicking material was doing its job so effectively that perspiration was winding up inside their gloves and skates, and was pooling there uncomfortably. The jerseys also don't breathe as well as the former "air-knit" polyester—"I feel like I'm working out in a sauna," Flames forward Owen Nolan told The Calgary Sun—and were ripping easily during fights.
Now Reebok is scurrying to please players with a version that has the same sleeker design but incorporates last year's fabric. for example, for example, four Canadiens who perspire heavily have changed to the new-new jerseys, and the whole team was planning to make the move after Christmas. The Lightning will change its jerseys en masse in late January. As for the old-new uniforms, maybe they'd best be stored wherever it is that the NBA keeps last year's revolutionary new synthetic balls.
A Defining Gaffe
WHEN THE NHL veers into the Twilight Zone, it generally involves a perp-walking owner or a stick-swinging goon, but Patrik Stefan, an erstwhile Dallas Stars center, accomplished the bizarre with nothing more than a puck, a stick and an empty net. On Jan. 4 in Edmonton, with the Stars leading 5--4 and time winding down, Stefan got the puck at the Edmonton blue line. The Oilers goalie was off for an extra attacker, and Stefan skated toward that empty net, preparing to backhand the puck in with 12 seconds left and put a bow on a Dallas victory. But as he neared the deserted crease the puck inexplicably leaped over the blade of his stick.
If Stefan had carried the puck with him as he stumbled into the corner boards, his gaffe would have been worth nothing more than a postgame chuckle. But the feckless Stefan slipped and shoved the puck behind him, allowing the Oilers' Jarret Stoll to corral it and start a rush. With two seconds left, Edmonton's Ales Hemsky backhanded the puck past Stars goalie Marty Turco, tying the score, forcing overtime and earning conference-rival Edmonton a point in the standings. The Stars won 6--5 in a shootout—"We turned a disaster into a debacle," said Oilers coach Craig MacTavish—but the play was a piercing disappointment for Stefan, who'd had a mediocre career after being drafted first in 1999.
"I said [to myself], 'Game's over. We won.'" recalls Turco, "Then the puck jumped in a way that defied the laws of physics. That's the most unbelievable thing in hockey I've ever been part of."
Stefan, who was not re-signed by Dallas and who retired in October—at age 27—after playing three games in the Swiss League, predicted after the game that his mistake would be seen "a million times for years to come." Maybe. As of last week, the three most-visited YouTube sites showing it had been hit more than 700,000 times.
1 PLAYER SUSPENDED FOR STEROID USE IN 2007, DEFENSEMAN SEAN HILL
22 YEARS IN WHICH DETROIT DEFENSEMAN CHRIS CHELIOS HAS PLAYED IN THE POSTSEASON
63 U.S.-BORN PLAYERS DRAFTED, THE MOST EVER
MAKING A DIFFERENCE | Saku Koivu, Montreal Canadiens
THE GREAT ones all had their signatures: Wayne Gretzky's setting up behind the net, Bobby Orr's skating coast-to-coast. Canadiens captain Saku Koivu's signature is in room D5-129 of Montreal General Hospital—on the side of an $8 million PET scanner. Almost 8,000 cancer patients have used the diagnostic tool since Koivu's foundation raised $2.5 million toward its purchase in May 2004.
The Finnish center, who came to Montreal as a 20-year-old in 1995, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in September 2001, and he soon discovered that the only PET scanner in Quebec was 90 minutes away. He set up his foundation on Nov. 13, 2002, to rectify that. Says Koivu, "It's a pretty amazing feeling when you walk out after a test and hear the doctors and nurses comment about how many people go through the machine every day and what an impact it has."
The foundation—which recently committed $300,000 to upgrade the machine—has also proved inspirational. Rapha√´l Leclaire, 17, suffered a recurrence of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma last fall, but even while undergoing chemotherapy, he raised $50,000 for the Koivu Foundation with a letter-writing campaign.
"Saku Koivu was an example—how he dealt with his cancer, the same one I had," Rapha√´l says. His last PET scan was on Oct. 25. He was cancer-free.
PREDICTIONS FOR 2008
THE FEB. 26 trade deadline will be much less frenzied than last season. Given the salary cap, league parity, the many contracts with no-trade clauses and teams locking up their potential free agents, one G.M. estimated that he and his peers spend 80% less time discussing trades than they used to.
STEVEN STAMKOS, now with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League, will be the first player selected in June's NHL draft. The 6'1", 180-pound center's game is complete, and the puck explodes off his stick.
THE ISLANDERS' Rick DiPietro, 26, will be among the NHL's top three goalies by the end of the year. His poise and maturity have finally caught up to his seemingly limitless talent.
THEY SAID IT
"In our bottom six forwards, we look for the requisite level of pugnacity, truculence, belligerence, hostility and testosterone."
BRIAN BURKE, Ducks G.M., whose recipe helped win the Stanley Cup.
FRED VUICH (CROSBY)
AIR TIME The NHL's broadcast partners count on the charismatic Crosby and his Penguins for a ratings boost.
BOB FISHER/MONTREAL CANADIENS HOCKEY CLUB (KOIVU)
RAFAEL SUANES/WIREIMAGE.COM (STEFAN)
FACING IT Stefan knows that he might always be remembered for his blunder.
NHL IMAGES/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (NEW UNIFORM)
NEW JERSEY Reebok's ballyhooed uniforms needed an overhaul.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (BURKE)
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG
JASON LEE (HANDS)