PITTSBURGH – Trust us when we say this. The Pittsburgh Penguins, from high-profile owner and former superstar Mario Lemieux on down, have pleaded with the NHL to do something to protect star players. Not just their own star players, but all star players. And the response from the league has pretty much been constant. So that development, combined with the fact that Sidney Crosby has received more abuse in these playoffs than ever – and that’s saying something – you can go to the bank betting on the Penguins to beef up their brawn and the expense of their skill and their brains this summer.
It’s actually been disheartening to see how much abuse Crosby has had to endure this playoff. Lots of people had a nice little chuckle when Mike Hoffman of the Ottawa Senators sprayed Crosby with water from the bench, a move that made the NHL look like a beer league. No penalty, no fine and no recriminations to a player who embarrassed himself and his league. And you can probably expect more of the same, at least in terms of a physical going over, from the Nashville Predators when the Stanley Cup final begins Monday night. Why? Because they can. The NHL will allow them to do it.
The Penguins will finally fight back. And the NHL will be lesser for it.
“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “ ‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”
Somewhere along the line, the NHL became comfortable with the notion that star players – the ones with more natural skill, more drive and more of a willingness to sacrifice – could be neutralized by inferior players who stepped outside the confines of the NHL rulebook. It’s become a part of hockey culture and it’s basically become an accepted principle. The NHL is pretty much alone in this approach and almost seems to wear it as a badge of honor. “I’ve watched it ever since I got here almost every game,” Rutherford said. “He gets this on a regular basis. Some of the stuff that goes on on a regular basis, it’s really disgusting.”
As Rutherford pointed out, Wayne Gretzky did not have to deal with that kind of abuse, perhaps in part because he had Dave Semenko watching over him. Bobby Orr received all kinds of shots from players because he had something of an edge to his game and Gordie Howe gave every bit as much as he received. But you watch a game where Johnny Gaudreau takes 20 slashes to his hand before the 21st breaks his finger and you wonder why the league allows it. Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews are in for much of the same over the next couple of years.
“The league has got to fix it,” Rutherford said. “In other leagues, they protect star players. In basketball, they don’t let their top players get abused. And in our league, well the thing I keep hearing is, ‘That’s hockey. That’s hockey,’ No, it’s not.”
For his part, Crosby has displayed a remarkable amount of restraint, particularly in the playoffs this spring. He has been whistled for just one retaliation minor in 18 games – a slashing call on Hoffman during the Ottawa series – and has picked up just two penalties so far in this year’s playoffs. In last year’s run to the Stanley Cup, Crosby picked up just four PIM in 24 games, pretty much turning the notion that he’s a crybaby on its ear. Should he have more PIM? Yes, absolutely. He should have received a major, not to mention a suspension, for almost taking Marc Methot's finger off with a slash and for spearing Ryan O'Reilly in the pills. Crosby is no saint to be sure, but we're willing to bet he gets a lot more than he gives.
“Yeah, it’s a challenge,” Crosby acknowledged. “That’s the challenge of playing in the playoffs. I guess you understand that after going through different experiences…that’s the way it is. It’s not always easy to accept that, but at the end of the day, you have to and you can’t get caught up in it and ultimately it’s about winning games. Getting caught up in that and getting frustrated isn’t going to lead to winning games. That’s kind of my motivation as far as staying focused. You just can’t allow yourself to get too caught up in that regardless of how bad it gets. You just have to keep going.”
It has been a growing process for Crosby. He will be the first to admit it. He had 110 penalty minutes in his rookie season and 24 this past season, the lowest full-season total of his career. The ability to be able to skate away has been one that has been cultivated over a decade.
“You can’t expect somebody to be ready for that and just go through with flying colors,” Crosby said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to be perfect. You’re going to lose your composure sometimes, but if you understand that can go a long way to having success, it makes you better."