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 Gretzkys record 51-game run.
It would have been nice to keep it going, Crosby said following Pittsburghs 2-1 shootout loss to the Islanders on Wednesday night.
Whether the streaks end was met so matter-of-factly in the NHL executive offices is a different matter.
The NHL is selling Saturdays Capitals-Penguins outdoor game at Heinz Field as a return to the sports 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.
Its a matchup between two competitive rivals and the stars who represent them.
But while its 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 isnt 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 didnt invite the Penguins to play in its New Years 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.
Its because of Sid.
Crosbys 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 Reeboks ads that proclaim Lets Take This Outdoors. His name is on top of the NHLs 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.
Its no coincidence that the Winter Classic took off after Crosby, following the script to perfection, scored the decisive goal in the shootout when 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.
Its only one game of 1,230 in the NHL, but its 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, after a year in which scandals were omnipresent in sports, hasnt been touched by a hint of any during his first six seasons.
During a year in which some of the NFLs 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 Crosbys No. 87 will be as visible as NBCs peacock logo during the three-hour telecast.
The Winter Classic was originally planned to highlight the Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin rivalry, but theres little argument this season which player is better. Going into Thursdays games, Crosby had a 13-point lead over Tampa Bays 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, Sids not a kid any more. Hes a man.
So if playing in this game required Crosby to give up any late-night New Years 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, its another opportunity to be part of a pretty unique event. The fact we have it in Pittsburgh, against a rival, and that its become such a big event, we all just feel lucky to be part of it.
The NHLs 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, its going to be a lot of fun.