Nashville Predators’ P.K. Subban, right, ties up Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby during the second period in Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals on Monday, May 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
In order to fit the names of the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins on the Stanley Cup, they will have to erase several former winners. Many notables are being pushed outside the trophy’s margins, but the one that rings out loudest is Gordie Howe. The fact that the removal comes close on the heels of Howe’s death is just a little too cinematic.
Howe won four titles with the Red Wings. It sounds like a lot now. It doesn’t in the context of Howe’s era, talent and longevity. It feels as if he should have had more.
The game was different then, an idea encapsulated by Howe’s first commandment: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
Howe’s fondness for Biblical retribution wouldn’t fit well in today’s NHL. Hockey’s gone from overtly brutal to subversively so.
That modern tendency toward passive-aggressive irritation rather than outright violence defined this year’s Stanley Cup final. The series’ unkindest blow was a hard word about someone’s halitosis, and a subsequent branding opportunity with a mouthwash manufacturer.
“Watching fresh breath become a rallying cry for the fans has been incredible,” a Listerine executive told ESPN in the aftermath.
If he meant incredible in the sense of “impossible to believe,” then yes. Who would have thought the two emblematic players of this particular moment in hockey history – Sidney Crosby and P.K. Subban – would do their sparring in the pages of Marketing magazine?
It speaks to the two sides of hockey’s culture war – the forces of conservatism, represented by Crosby and Pittsburgh, and the agitators for change, represented by Subban and Nashville.
Subban is a preening, look-at-me, ride-my-stick-like-Slim-Pickens-on-the-bomb sort of player. He’s both insufferable and a lot of fun. However much people want to believe that Subban’s fan-focused approach is changing minds inside the NHL, it’s clear that most hockey people don’t like him. They just aren’t dumb enough to say it out loud very often.
Only Crosby could get away with it: “He likes the attention.” In this particular branch of the entertainment industry, “liking attention” is an indicator of low character.
But however the cabal of former and current pros who staff the teams feel about Subban, the league will have noticed that Subban is their only player who generates any heat outside traditional hockey-media circles. Call that The New Yorker test.
They will further have noticed that Subban’s arrival in Nashville coincided with a sudden childlike rush to embrace the game’s circus elements.
Ten years ago, watching a bunch of yee-hawing hockey-lite hillbillies toss fish onto the ice while Faith Hill does the scales through the Star-Spangled Banner would have generated enough eye rolling north of the border to detach a million retinas. But this year, led there by Subban, even the cynics and purists embraced Nashville’s naive enthusiasm.
For decades, Canada has treated hockey like church. In Tennessee, they’ve turned the sport into a tent revival. Like it or not, it certainly seems like better bang for your disposable buck.
Maybe it’s time we dropped the dreary reverence? Maybe dead-animal tossing really is the way to jump-start the atmo in hockey’s most sombre temples? (In Toronto, I suggest raccoons – thus solving two civic crises at once.)
Against that rising tide of frivolity stands Howe’s most perfected heir: Crosby.
Crosby’s Stakhanovite approach to professional sport has never been more on display than it was during this year’s run. He was good, which is to be expected. But he was also stoic and relentless in a way that reminds you of the fifties and sixties. When Crosby was nearly decapitated by a crosscheck during the Washington series, hockey rose up as one to rend its garments. Not Crosby.
“I felt fine,” he said afterward. That was his final word on the matter.
Crosby’s been at this for a long time now – twelve years. While the game struggles over whether to get a little bit louder, Crosby responds by getting much quieter. No fist pumps. No egging on the crowd. No celebrations that might be mistaken as anything more than a respectful acknowledgment of whoever passed him the puck.
Every answer to any question is now a polite variant of “none of your business.” Crosby’s ability to avoid public detection has grown so complete, it ought to be studied by the manufacturers of military hardware. What do you know about him besides the Legend of the Clothes Dryer? Nothing. He’s the stealth bomber of superstars.
Winning a second consecutive Cup and playoff MVP cements Crosby’s place as a participant, if not a front-runner, in the “best-ever” conversation. He’d probably rank higher if he had a bit more common touch.
Everyone admires Crosby, but it’s hard to believe many people love him in the way they loved a Gretzky or an Orr – the sorts of players who gave just as much of themselves off the ice as on it. Crosby’s personality is so gnomic that we are forced to judge him purely on his accomplishments.
Howe had the same approach. He could be enormously warm, but he wasn’t much of a talker. He had only one facial expression – blank determination. He approached the game as work. I’m sure he enjoyed himself, but I doubt he thought of hockey as “fun” while he was competing at it.
As such, Howe was not fully embraced until he was an old man still playing the game. His remarkable seniority eventually humanized him.
Crosby won’t get the same advantage, but he carries on with the same mission. He is a man who wants the sport to remain a sober, socialist endeavour. The individual will be sublimated into the group, and none will ever enjoy attention. From each and to each and all the rest of that good Marxist-Leninist stuff.
It may be a less interesting take on hockey than P.K. Subban’s me-first free-for-all, but the names on the Cup prove that it is, at least for now, more effective.