Note: This is an edited version of a blog post I wrote last year during the Flyers-Penguins playoff series. I had written a piece on Puck Daddy's re-speculation that Roberto Luongo could be headed to the Flyers, and how that deal wasn't going to happen because it wasn't logical for either Vancouver or Philadelphia. But thanks to SB Nation's you-must-wait-24-hours-after-registering-an-account-before-you-can-post buffer zone, I had to watch helplessly as the Internet exploded with Luongo-to-Edmonton rumors, effectively rendering my post moot. So yeah, I'm throwing this up instead before these auditions close.
Let me start by saying that I am not a believer in conspiracy theories, and that I'm usually the first to speak up in defense of Gary Bettman and the NHL whenever somebody starts the "Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are the league's pet project" or the "Gary Bettman's favorite son" talk.
As much as it pains me to even write the words "Gary Bettman" on their own, let alone preceded by the words "in defense of," it's tough for me to get on board with the idea that a major business entity (like the NHL, which, at least theoretically, thrives on parity) might give preferential treatment to an individual player or team. Big corporations can't possibly be corrupt, you know what I mean? (Now excuse me while I crawl back underneath my rock).
"The level of passion, emotion and gamesmanship can never be overestimated," Bettman said. "I think people who follow the game closely understand it's just noise. My guess is, Sidney Crosby is still the most popular player and has legions of fans in all ages in multiple countries. The fact that somebody might take a potshot, I guess, is the price of greatness."
I had two immediate reactions to that statement. The first was that this was a viral marketing gimmick plugging the official, NHL-licensed Sidney Crosby biography, "The Price of Greatness," already written and ready to be released the day Crosby retires. But then I realized that's not a real thing. Yet.
The second reaction was that this seems a little out of line on the part of the Commissioner and the league.
Sure, everyone from NHL coaches to respected analysts (haha!) such as Milbury and Don Cherry has been getting on Crosby and the Pens over the last few weeks, but does that really merit this type of official response from the NHL?
We expect the league to defend its guys, especially its stars and especially especially when it's noted inflamatory figures/jackasses like Milbury and Cherry doing the attacking. But wouldn't a simple disclaimer, a "the NHL does not endorse or speculate on the opinions of media personalities not in our employ," have been enough?
To be fair, most of the article (as posted on NHL.com) was Bettman and NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus talking about how much of an idiot Milbury is (which we can get behind) and how they were glad Milbury apologized for what he said. But both Bettman and Lazarus also made sure to mention that Milbury's comments weren't made on NHL- or NBC-affiliated programs, which means that technically, the league didn't really need to make any kind of statement or comment on the issue at all. And Bettman sure as hell didn't need to get involved.
It's not the same situation as with Ozzie Guillen in Miami (who, in case you missed it, confessed his love for Fidel Castro, and is also an idiot). Guillen is a direct employee of MLB, and his remarks were not just politically incorrect, but offensive on a social level that transcends the sport, so MLB was obligated to step in. Milbury's and Cherry's remarks were purely sports opinion and couldn't be construed as offensive to anybody but Crosby and Penguins fans—and even then, they're offensive only in the context of the sport (rather than an "I just told a city populated by victims of a cruel dictator's regime that said dictator is a really great dude" context).
The point is, it seems like Bettman went way above and beyond what was necessary here, and stuff like this only provides additional fuel for the "Crosby+NHL Forever XOXO" conspiracy machine. By saying, "My guess is, Sidney Crosby is still the most popular player and has legions of fans in all ages in multiple countries," Bettman is turning a blind eye to the legions of fans in all ages in multiple countries who actually think Crosby is kind of a dick. And there are lots of those fans.
It's probably an overstatement to say this, but by continuing to go above and beyond what is necessary in defense of Crosby and the Penguins, Bettman and the NHL are effectively marginalizing everyone who isn't a Pittsburgh fan. And I'm no statistician, but I'm willing to bet the NHL's core fanbase consists of more non-Penguins fans than Penguins fans.
As much as the NHL wants Crosby to be one its heroes, he's perceived by just about everyone outside of Pittsburgh as one of its villains. That reputation might not be deserved, but it's the way people see it. Besides, sports leagues need villains. The NBA has Kobe. Major League Baseball has the Yankees. Major League Soccer has the fact that it's soccer.
Maybe it's time for the NHL to stop trying to tell the fans how to feel about Sidney Crosby, and let the fans make that decision for themselves.
Until then, bring on the conspiracy theories.