Hype Machine Working Overtime?

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(photo from Yahoo! Sports)

The following is an email exchange between myself and Mer. I read an article entitled “First One for the Next One” by Michael Farber in the October 17th issue of Sports Illustrated (subscription required to read online) and wanted to know Mer’s thoughts on the hyping of Penguins 18-year-old phenom, Sidney Crosby. What follows is our discussion.

Kristen: Okay so, baseball is winding down (though the World Series looks to be exciting), and football only happens once a week. So I’m gonna need to write about hockey. I was just reading this week’s issue of SI at lunch and there’s a short but interesting article on Sidney Crosby (or, more specifically Crosby’s first NHL goal), but it compares him to Gretzky, Lemiuex, Lindros and says the hype is equivalent to LeBron James. Anyway, it’s an interesting piece.

My question, I guess, after reading that is, is the hype too much? He already seems like he’s trying to single-handedly save the team, (and re-energize the entire sport). Can we really expect that from an 18-year-old? When does it get to be too much?

Mer: Crosby is no doubt a huge talent, but I’m waiting a few years before I pass judgment on whether or not he’ll be the next Gretzky. I remember when Lindros came into the league with the Flyers, and people were crowning him “The Next One” before he even stepped on the ice. He said it made him uncomfortable, and I don’t think he dealt well with that kind of hype. He was a spectacular player to watch for those first few years, straight through to his MVP year. I mean, he was absolutely electric on the ice. But then came the head injuries, the personal problems with the Philly front office, and the problems with teammates, and eventually he went to the Rangers. Most people who didn’t get to watch him play every day consider him a bust, but that’s not even close to accurate. His points-per-game when he was with the Flyers was incredible. He’s proving right now in Toronto that he hasn’t lost it…he’s a hell of a player. When people crown a player “The Next One,” they’re assuming there will be zero injuries, zero personality problems, zero off-ice issues. But casting that kind of hype on a 19 –year-old kid, you’re guaranteed to be disappointed.

That said, I understand why Crosby is being hyped as such. The NHL needs a savior, and Crosby is it. The game needs to pulled out of the ground, and with new rules and new-look teams, it’s almost perfect to be able to flash the baby face of an 18-year-old kid who you can compare to Gretzky, isn’t it? Still, when you strap the future of an entire league on the back of a teenager, shouldn’t you expect him to stumble a bit along the way?

That raises another issue: that’s the trouble with the hype machine – it brings the attention and expectations to Crosby NOW, instead of maybe 5 years from now, when he’s really coming into his own. Americans have very little patience, very short attention spans – that’s a fact. So many casual fans (the ones we’re using Crosby to attract to the game) expect Crosby to look like Gretzky this season, so when things start to unfold and they realize that this is just a kid who needs a few years of work to improve his game at this level, they become impatient, they feel they were lied to. Is that really beneficial to anyone?

After I got home from my soccer game on Friday night, I watched a TIVO’d version of the Flyers/Pens game. Crosby obviously has a touch around the net; that much is obvious. But the one thing I found most interesting was his play at the other end of the ice. He made a couple of bad plays that led to Flyers goals, and afterwards, he looked extremely frustrated and a bit lost. I think he’s feeling the pressure to prove himself and live up to the hype right away, and so he is focusing on his offense and as a result, letting his defensive play suffer. I don’t think any of that is particularly troublesome, given his age, and given the fact that if there’s anyone who can mentor him right, it’s Mario Lemieux.

Also, it frustrates me when people say that Crosby is the most hyped player since Wayne Gretzky. Helloooooo – how could you have forgotten Eric Lindros so soon? He was on the cover of The Hockey News when he was sixteen years old, three years away from even playing in the NHL. You called him “The Next One” – are your memories really that poor?

Kristen: I think you make really good points. Particularly about the comparison to Lindros (which the article also mentioned). And it said the same thing; Lindros wasn’t comfortable with the attention, which, at least in part, led to problems.

Also, there was a comparison to LeBron James, in terms of level of hype. The difference is that James was going into a healthy league with a solid fan base and good TV revenues. Crosby is supposed to Save Hockey. It’s a bit different. Especially considering that most people at least understand the basics of basketball. Not everyone understands hockey. It often looks like complete chaos. And yeah, you can tell if someone is talented if they’re constantly on breakaways and scoring 8 goals a game but it’s like you said, what about the times when they don’t have the puck or aren’t skating for a score?

SI also made reference to Crosby needing to work on his “middling face off skills” which is valid. I mean, Mario Lemieux scored his first NHL goal on his first shot of his first shift of his first game. So Crosby’s already behind. I think the team needs to be cognizant of the fact that he’s going to put an immense amount of pressure on himself because everyone has anointed him the savior of hockey. I think they need to let him know that he doesn’t have to do everything. Because that kind of pressure would destroy him.

Mer: That LeBron James comparison is a great point. It is completely different to be expected to save an entire sport. If LeBron had a good year, but not spectacular, would people be so quick to give up on him? I don’t think so. Because, as you pointed out, people understand basketball. They understand that it takes a year or two, maybe, to grow into your own. With hockey, it’s different. It’s expected to all be automatic, because most people have very little knowledge of how different the NHL is from the college, junior, or European levels.

That’s a fantastic article. It makes lots of good points, but this is the most telling:

“Greatness isn’t decided at 18,” [Crosby] said last Thursday. “You can’t say a player’s good until he’s played 10, 15 years in the league. Great players are the ones consistent year after year, the ones who win championships.”

That kid is wise beyond his years. Eric Lindros arrived in Philly as a fresh-faced 19-year-old kid. He was immediately made Captain and expected to lead the team to a Cup. Crosby’s situation, luckily for him, is a bit different. With Lemieux as his mentor, and guys like Recchi and LeClair to help guide him, he’ll be just fine.

Kristen: I found him especially eloquent too. I was pleasantly surprised by his poise. I think he just needs to let himself be taught. He needs to let himself rely on the older mentors and not get a big head about things.

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