After closing up shop for almost a year, the NHL is back in business. When the 30 owners agreed to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement last Friday, the lockout officially came to an end. But it was the draft lottery that signaled the arrival of hockey’s future.

Chelsea Trull
NHL executives are itching for junior hockey phenom Sidney Crosby to break into the Pittsburgh lineup, potentially saving a league seemingly doomed by a year-long lockout. (Ap photo)

For the first time in league history, the lottery determined the position of all 30 teams in the Entry Draft, giving every team a chance to have the No. 1 selection. This year’s first pick was especially prized with the rights to a 17-year-old phenom from Nova Scotia at stake. Sidney Crosby dominated the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the past two seasons, and Wayne Gretzky has called him the best junior player he’s seen since Mario Lemieux.

The NHL hopes Crosby is the second coming of Gretzky, destined to rekindle interest in hockey in the south and southwest, the areas where the lockout is sure to have the greatest effect. While Gretzky was able to court this audience because of where he played, Crosby’s dynamic presence alone should be enough to peak interest in these areas, due in large part to the inroads Gretzky made. For the Pittsburgh Penguins — the team lucky enough to win Crosby — he is a young Lemieux, a charismatic playmaker sent to save the franchise.

Crosby might be all this and more. But right now, neither the NHL nor the Penguins care. What matters at the moment is whether Crosby will be able to spark enough interest in a nation that has become largely indifferent to hockey.

Of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States, only the NFL has the widespread popularity necessary to weather a setback of the NHL lockout’s magnitude. Even with this immense popularity, the NFL can benefit from an electrifying performance by a player like Michael Vick or the determined pursuit of a major record, like that of Peyton Manning last season. For the NFL, players like Vick and Manning are luxuries that increase already high attention. But for the other three major sports leagues, players like these are essential.

While popular, the NBA and MLB are reliant on their superstars to keep audiences interested. When the NBA was at risk of folding in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was the charm of Magic Johnson, his rivalry with Larry Bird and the other-worldly talent of Michael Jordan that not only saved the league but carried it to new levels of popularity.

After the MLB strike in 1994 that cancelled the World Series, pundits everywhere wondered whether America’s pastime had lost its appeal for good. But the home run race of 1998 and Barry Bonds’s controversial run at the career home run record proved that all baseball needed was a superstar or two to regain its popularity.

Unless a league is the sports hegemon of its time, it must rely solely on the abilities of its most dominant players to increase both its fan base and its profit margins. The NHL is in a more precarious position than either the NBA or MLB. Even before the lockout, some contended that it had lost its place among the major professional sports leagues in the United States. If the NHL has any chance for survival, it must market Crosby as its savior. History shows it has no choice.

But how will this attention affect Crosby? He cannot possibly live up to the hype he has received — even if he amasses unheard-of numbers and goes down as one of the greatest players of all time. If Crosby is not a star in the next few years, there is a chance he will be seen as a bust. Few 17-year-olds in any arena would be able to handle a spotlight this intense.

Even the NBA appears to agree, despite the effect that 18-year-old LeBron James had on the sport a few years ago. In its collective bargaining agreement announced in June, the NBA raised its minimum entry age from 18-years-old to 19-years-old, in addition to being at least one year removed from high school. NBA officials said they sought the change because they wanted to improve the quality of play in their league. But another concern was the maturity of its players and their ability to handle the attention.

It’s hard to draw direct comparisons between the NBA and the NHL, but if Crosby can handle it, why can’t the half-dozen or so basketball players each year who want to enter the NBA right out of high school? Ultimately, the different rules reflect little more than business decisions designed to maximize profits. Professional sport is a business after all.

NBA commissioner David Stern supported the age limit because he believed the league had an image problem that its teenage players only exacerbated. The raw style of its mostly urban players has proven unappealing to the NBA’s white, middle-class audience. In the same fashion, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman trumpets the talents of the teenage Crosby because he believes the league has an image problem that young, exciting players can only improve. It’s hard to attract mainstream American youth when so many of your stars are over the age of 35.

As much as professional sports are just games, they are also big businesses. The NHL needs Crosby for his marketability as much as his playmaking ability. The NBA needs James for the same reasons. The problem is no player comes into any league as a proven commodity. There’s no guarantee that Crosby will ever develop into the player the hockey world expects him to be. He could be the next Gretzky just as easily as the next Sedin brother.

Either way, it’s good business for the NHL to market Crosby as the next Great One; the recent histories of the NBA and MLB show that. But the fact that the NHL needs Crosby to fulfill his destiny indicates an even larger problem for the game of hockey.

A problem not even shoot-outs can solve.

 

Stephanie Wright would like to congratulate penguins — the hockey team from Pittsburgh for winning the Draft Lottery and the real ones in “March of the Penguins” for making an awesome movie. She can be reached at smwr@umich.edu.

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