How The Outside World Views Sidney Crosby

f you haven't seen it by now, you will soon, either at the grocery store or the airport or anywhere else that sells Sports Illustrated. Their new cover doesn't feature an NBA player, Tiger Woods on his apology tour, or Olympic darling Lindsey Vonn. It is an Olympian, but it's not even an American -- and for SI, how sacrilegious is that?

It's Sidney Crosby.

The sound you just heard was magazine covers being ripped up in Philadelphia and Washington DC.

When Crosby scored the gold-medal winning goal, I posted that his fans and haters probably grew equally. After seeing the adoration that the mainstream media showered on Crosby (the non-stop NBC camera shots, the SI cover, etc.), I'm guessing those haters now outweigh the fans. The Crosby hype machine was working overdrive, though in all fairness, none of that was actually decided by Crosby.

It's filtering into mainstream media. Take these two examples of newspaper columns by guys who've probably never even seen a puck before. From Jeremy Solomon, columnist for Hearst Newspapers (owners of the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, and other newspapers):

You could say that Crosby - handsome, rich, supremely talented - has been smiled on by the gods. On Sunday, the gods from Mount Olympus joined the hockey gods in one huge Crosby grin, as the already famous forward moved from superstar to legend status at 22.

Wow. A bit of an exaggeration, maybe? Look, we all know that Crosby is one of the most talented guys in the league. In fact, he's probably on an elite level only shared by Alex Ovechkin. He's got a pretty complete game, works hard, and seems to add something new to his skill set each season. A legend? Perhaps a legendary moment, but I wouldn't put him in that category yet.

Crosby haters, if that doesn't turn your stomach, this will. Scott Ostler, SF Chronicle sports columnist obviously never covers hockey -- the word "Sharks" shows up exactly six times in a year-long search of his archive. In fact, the Chronicle doesn't really cover the San Jose Sharks that extensively -- they let go of their beat writer a few years back when they downsized. Ostler did, however, cover the Olympics. When it came to hockey, he led his recap of the gold medal game with this joke:

Wise-guy question: Which sport has the most accidents? Answer: Hockey. They're called goals.

Yeech. Well, Ostler does wind up showing appreciation for the game and the sport. As for Crosby? Ostler may still have some drool on his mouth.

It was far beyond cool, then, when the biggest game in the history of hockey was decided by the greatest player on a goal that was as non-fluky and as brilliantly executed as any play ever performed at the ultimate moment by Jordan or Bonds or Manning or Federer.

It was the "The Starry Night" of hockey goals-so beautiful, so obvious, so difficult and so simple that anyone could appreciate it.

Let's leave Barry Bonds and his inflated head out of this, but Michael Jordan or Roger Federer? Those guys are obviously among the greatest, if not the absolute greatest, athletes in their respective sports. And Ostler is comparing Crosby to them.

Congratulations, NHL marketing. You've finally done your job well. The mainstream media, those eyes that you've so desperately wanted to win over for so long, have bought into the notion that Sidney Crosby is on par with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, and Bobby Orr.

Now, before Crosby fans come out to defend him, please understand this: I actually like the guy. I sure as hell wish he was on my team, and I think that his work ethic on and off the ice has brought him to a level that few can achieve. He's a surefire Hall of Famer, one of the best players of his generation, and may wind up being in that rare category of best players of all time -- but near the top of that list? No way. Perhaps after all is said and done, he'll be in the 10-20 range, but there's simply no way he'll match what guys like Gretzky or Orr brought to the table.

That's not a knock on Crosby by any means. It's just understanding the difference between perception and reality. I'm guessing if you took away the media and the hype, if that never existed and you just had Sidney Crosby as a hockey player, most fans would respect or like him. But when you bring the Gretzky tag when the talent is more comparable to, say, Jaromir Jagr, fans get irritated.

And now, more than ever, the mainstream media is buying into the hype. It's pretty irritating, but if you take a step back, you have to wonder: could it actually be good for the game?

No single person is greater than the sport, but having a face and a presence out to capture the casual fans' attention and the media spotlight is a good thing. It helps that Crosby is humble, works hard, and at least has a pretty decorated resume to lend some credibility to the perception that he's the best player in the sport -- I mean, let's face it, even begrudging hockey fans will admit he's in the top five, perhaps even number one on any given night. It'd be far different if he was merely another point-per-game first liner.

So he's got the chops to earn most, but not all, of his distorted reputation among non-hockey folks. Irritating as that might be to many hockey fans, here's a guy who has done the near-impossible -- he's been able to reach into the mainstream and be a viable, relevant face. If Crosby's presence can grow the game to people who normally wouldn't know Steve Yzerman from Stephen Weiss, how can that be frowned open?

A few years back, I was at a San Jose Sharks playoff game with a friend and I complained about how HP Pavilion just got so damn crowded during the playoffs. All the bandwagon fans crawled out of the woodwork even though the only guys on the team they knew were Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. I'd shake my head and bemoan the idiots that surrounded me. My friend raised a Spock-ian eyebrow at me and said in a very matter-of-fact voice, "You're always trying to convince people how great hockey is. Now more people are watching it and you're complaining about it? Don't you want people to like hockey?"

The simplicity of his question was a punch in the gut. Yes, of course I wanted people to like hockey. We know it's the greatest game, we know why it's the greatest game, and we'll preach it to the ends of the earth. If it meant that there were more bandwagon fans during the playoffs, then so be it -- because those bandwagon fans could turn into dedicated fans once they were exposed to the speed and skill of the game.

I look at the Crosby situation the same way. I know he's not Gretzky, you know he's not Gretzky, but Joe Blow reading Sports Illustrated in New Mexico may buy into it. Ok, so it's not our preferred way of exposing him to the game, but it comes down to the simple question: do you want more people to like hockey? I do. And because of that, I'm willing to accept that some guy who never watches the game thinks Sidney Crosby is the greatest player since Wayne Gretzky -- because at least he's thinking about Crosby, which means he's thinking about hockey. And that's a start.

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