PITTSBURGH — There was no stick-breaking by Sidney Crosby when his 25-game scoring streak ended one game short of the Winter Classic. To Crosby, the streak was good while it lasted, but he never had any expectations of threatening Wayne Gretzky’s record 51-game run.
“It would have been nice to keep it going,” Crosby said following Pittsburgh’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Islanders on Wednesday night.
Whether the streak’s end was met so matter-of-factly in the NHL executive offices is a different matter.
The NHL is selling Saturday’s Capitals-Penguins outdoor game at Heinz Field as a return to the sport’s roots, a rare opportunity to watch a pro hockey game where the elements might play a role in the outcome. The NFL and MLB play outdoors and indoors, but the NHL usually plays only indoors.
It’s a matchup between two competitive rivals and the stars who represent them.
But while it’s called the Winter Classic, it might as well be the Crosby Classic.
There is no attempt to hide this: The NHL is marketing Crosby, his easy-to-recognize skills, his easy-to-like personality, his boyish image, much like the league once hyped Gretzky. Crosby isn’t just the face of the NHL, he possesses one of the few faces and names a casual sports fan can identify during a time when NHL highlights often take up only a few moments of air time nightly on ESPN.
No, the NHL didn’t invite the Penguins to play in its New Year’s Day showcase — one the league compares to the Daytona 500 in terms of impact — because Pittsburgh is a huge media market that will deliver huge TV ratings. Or because the Penguins won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago.
It’s because of Sid.
Crosby’s jersey is easily the No. 1 best seller nationally, and has pushed Winter Classic sales to their highest level in four years. His face fills Reebok’s ads that proclaim Let’s Take This Outdoors. His name is on top of the NHL’s goal-scoring and points lists. His leadership has put the Penguins No. 1 in the NHL standings. His scoring streak was beginning to attract considerable media attention. His accomplishments have made him, at age 23, The Canadian Press’ national athlete of the year for the third time.
It’s no coincidence that the Winter Classic took off after Crosby, following the script to perfection, scored the decisive goal in the shootout as the Penguins beat the Sabres 2-1 in a near snowstorm in Buffalo three years ago.
“I think this game sets up to potentially be the biggest of them all,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins said Thursday.
It’s only one game of 1,230 in the NHL, but it’s the biggest in terms of the league expanding its base audience, getting a regular-season game into the living rooms of families that usually ignore the sport. And showing off a likable star who, following a year in which scandals were omnipresent in sports, hasn’t been touched by a hint of any during his first six seasons.
During a year in which some of the NFL’s best-known names dealt with image-damaging behavior issues (Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre) or tried to rebuild their images following previous misdeeds (Michael Vick), think that league wishes its No. 1 star was as wholesome as Crosby?
No wonder Crosby’s No. 87 will be as visible as NBC’s peacock logo during the three-hour telecast.
The Winter Classic was originally planned to highlight the Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin rivalry, but there’s little argument this season which player is better. Going into Thursday’s games, Crosby had a 13-point lead over Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos in the scoring race after getting 32 goals and 33 assists in his first 39 games. Ovechkin was No. 8. In goal scoring, Crosby was first and Ovechkin was 25th.
As former teammate Bill Guerin said earlier this month while announcing his retirement, “Sid’s not a kid any more. He’s a man.”
So if playing in this game required Crosby to give up any late-night New Year’s Eve celebration, so be it.
“I think we all feel pretty lucky to be in the game,” Crosby said. “For some of us who have played in one already, it’s another opportunity to be part of a pretty unique event. The fact we have it in Pittsburgh, against a rival, and that it’s become such a big event, we all just feel lucky to be part of it.”
The NHL’s next challenge is to find a way to keep having Crosby involved in it.
“Only a couple of teams get to do this every year,” Crosby said. “To be at home and feel this excitement, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”