“I really, honestly don’t care about the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry.”
That was Brooks Laich of the Washington Capitals this week, but it could have been any random NHL fan from 2010 through the present day. We were force-fed this rivalry since the 2005 lockout, like Kevin Spacey nourishing his example of “Gluttony” in “Seven”, well past the point of satisfaction.
Today, the portions are smaller, but the menu remains the same.
We’re getting another plateful on Wednesday night, as Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins face Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals for the first time as Metro Division rivals. It’s a meeting that’s sparked another round of pundits and mainstream observers telling us how much the NHL needs this rivalry.
Which of course ignores the idea that the NHL no longer does.
Look, you can’t rekindle this rivalry to its previous luster when Crosby and Ovechkin were seen as equals. It was perfection: Two contrasting styles, nationalities, personalities. Real animosity. The Beatles vs. the Stones. Bird vs. Magic. It was one of the single biggest personal rivalries in the history of the League, and perhaps it's most marketable considering how much the media landscape changed since Mario vs. Gretzky. Hell, they headlined an outdoor game.
It was inescapable, all-encompassing. It defined the NHL, and in some ways the Vancouver Olympics, at least in the lead-up. The League’s website would offer “tale of the tape” previews like the two were heavyweight fighters, and not players that faced each other for roughly 90 seconds every time the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals met.
Then it went dormant. Partially because Sidney Crosby was injured and Alex Ovechkin’s scoring pace became that of a human for a few seasons. Partially because Crosby’s growth as a player, relative to Ovechkin’s, and championship accomplishments – the win over the Capitals in the 2009 playoffs, the Stanley Cup, the game-winning goal to capture Olympic gold – ended the argument as to which player was the best in the world.
Sidney Crosby was the best player in the world. Alex Ovechkin wasn’t in the conversation.
Ovechkin is back in the debate in 2013, with the scoring totals rising and with another Hart Trophy on the mantle. He could get another crack at Crosby in the playoffs – Sid’s Penguins won a seven-game classic over Ovi’s Capitals in 2009 – as division rivals, and a chance to meet Crosby in Sochi at the Winter Games.
But if Ovechkin beats the Penguins, if he wins the Cup, if he takes Olympic gold, he’s not beating Crosby at anything – he’s matching his accomplishments. It’s like watching a space race between two nations after one’s already landed on Mars.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s still a rivalry here. Crosby vs. Ovechkin still sells to the casual fan, their game highlights earning their way onto “SportsCenter." (Just before the women’s basketball highlights, which is an accomplishment for hockey on ESPN.)
But back in 2009, the talk was that the NHL needed Sidney vs. Ovi to thrive.
It no longer does.
First, let’s agree that marketing stars is a sticky wicket for the NHL. As mentioned earlier, Sid and Ovi don’t actually face each other on every shift, nor are they always on the ice period. It’s easy to market Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, given the focus and facetime both receive during games. Marketing star players in a sport like hockey is more difficult because the stars don’t play two thirds of the game.
Easier, then, for the NHL is to market teams, and the League has done a hell of a job of that (or has been incredibly lucky) since the halcyon days of Crosby vs. Ovechkin.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, headlined by Crosby and Ovechkin, are draws. But then there's the rise of the Chicago Blackhawks as a ratings monster. The return of the Boston Bruins as a national draw. The presence of the Philadelphia Flyers, in most seasons, is a draw, as are the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers. Now we’re making time to see the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks. Now the Toronto Maple Leafs are drawing interest.
You know what the five most-watched regular season games on NBC Sports Network were as of Oct. 1 of this year? Four were from 2013, featuring the Bruins, New York Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, Blackhawks and Capitals. The other was from 2011, featuring the Bruins and Flyers.
All of this is to say that it’s a different marketing world now for the NHL. Crosby vs. Ovechkin is window dressing for what’s become the lifeblood of the League’s promotional plan: THE RIVALRY.
Rivalry night, “NHL Rivals”, the rivals we see in the outdoor games, rivalries amplified in the realigned playoff format. Rivals, rivals, rivals and more rivals.
The fact is that the NHL can schedule any combination of teams and gain an audience or attention. There have more compelling franchises than they did five years ago, and a larger system of star players beyond Sid and Ovi. Is anyone going to be thinking about Ovechkin when the world finally gets Jonathan Toews vs. Sidney Crosby, and the Blackhawks vs. the Penguins, at Soldier Field?
(Conversely, the temptation is there to put the Penguins in the Capitals' Winter Classic next season, but it's no longer mandatory for it to work at Nationals Park.)
Again, Crosby vs. Ovechkin will always sell. These players are forever connected. These stars will forever shine in the eyes of the non-hockey media. But there was a time when their rivalry defined the NHL, and thankfully that time has passed.
Not only is that good news for those of us that were ready to regurgitate all the forced hype we had to swallow for the sake of their enmity, but for the NHL itself and hockey in general, which is now bigger than Crosby vs. Ovechkin.
To wit: If Canada and Russia meet for gold in Sochi, will the storyline be the 2010 champs trying to prevent their hated rivals from winning gold on home ice, or 87 vs. 8 in a personal battle for glory?
I’d wager it’ll be about the team, which is, after all, the quintessence of hockey anyway.
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