Wednesday, January 25, 2006

“Sid the Kid” are three of the most common words in the NHL these days.

Everywhere you turn, someone is promoting Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Sidney Crosby. The Penguins’ publicity machine churns out material. The league’s new cable outlet features him in slogans that compare Crosby to the great Wayne Gretzky. The NHL promotes him heavily on its Web site.

The new face of the league, according to the cover of ESPN the Magazine, is not the sterling rookie of the Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin. It is — of course — Sid the Kid.

The battle on the ice clearly belongs to Ovechkin, who holds a strong statistical edge over Crosby. Just as clearly, Crosby is winning this battle of hype — a fight that is most unusual in hockey circles. There are those who simply want it to disappear.

“I think the two people involved would likely wish it would just go away,” said coach Glen Hanlon of the Capitals, who face the Penguins tonight in Pittsburgh. “This time it’s not quite the same as it was the first time. There’s special games for each player in the room. It’s a close group, and I’m sure they would like to win for Alex, but it’s just our next game.”

Crosby was the first player chosen in the 2005 draft, Ovechkin the first in 2004. Crosby took the lead in one statistical category — attention gained — as soon as play resumed in October after the lockout that wiped out last season.

On Oct. 5, the first night of play, the league sent audio feed to hundreds of radio stations when a certain Penguins rookie assisted on a goal in his first game, a loss.

Another rookie also playing his first NHL game scored two goals and propelled his team to a victory. That accomplishment, however, was not immediately acknowledged by the league.

The question is, why? Crosby is neither dominating the rookie scoring race nor playing his team into the postseason.

Heading into last night’s games, the Penguins were tied for the fewest wins in the league this season with 11 and ranked last in the Eastern Conference with 31 points. The Capitals, led by Ovechkin, have fared at least somewhat better: They have 17 wins, though they rank only above the Penguins in the conference.

Crosby leads his team in all offensive categories, but he fares poorly in a statistical comparison with Ovechkin.

Ovechkin has scored 33 goals — he was tied for second in the league through Monday’s games — to 23 for Crosby. Ovechkin has more points (62 to 54). Ovechkin is plus-2 defensively and Crosby minus-10, a difference that amounts to 12 goals.

The Caps wing has taken 30 minutes in penalties. The Penguins center has been unavailable to his team for more than twice that time — one of the reasons Ovechkin averages close to 21 minutes of ice time and Crosby little more than 19.

Ovechkin does not seem bothered about the race for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s best rookie. He has faced Crosby before and will face him again.

“He’s a great player, but we are very different,” Ovechkin said. “All I think about is how we can win games in Washington. I don’t think about how many goals I can score or winning rookie of the year.”

Said Crosby: “There’s always build-up for these games, but by no means am I out there watching him the whole time or worrying about an individual.”

Yet ESPN the Magazine has a spread in its current issue that rivals “War and Peace” in length, an article six pages long with more than a few photos. The same publication did a piece on Ovechkin earlier in the season, but it was one-third the length, a story written with the tone of a star player buried in a hockey wasteland.

Pittsburgh never has been confused with great hockey towns like Montreal; even Montreal native Mario Lemieux at first refused to acknowledge he had been drafted by the Penguins, a team from the American Rust Belt.

Open the Web site of any of the NHL’s 30 teams, and there is a league-sponsored link in the upper left corner of the home pages. Click on “NHL Player Sites,” and only one name is available: Sidney Crosby. This must be especially galling to a guy like Jaromir Jagr, who has been leading the league in scoring since the season started.

Tune in to the NHL’s new U.S. cable outlet, OLN, which constantly plays a cute little slogan, “The Great One and the Next One” along with pictures of Gretzky and Sid the Kid. No mention of Ovechkin, the rookie scoring leader.

It is the same on NBC. This season the network already has shown and again will show Crosby — and promoted those appearances — but the Caps and Ovechkin aren’t on the schedule. Perhaps the network has a huge following in Crosby’s home town, Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, but gets horrible ratings in Ovechkin’s neighborhood in Moscow.

Some might consider it paranoia. Perhaps but consider this: Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are not allowed to provide anything of value to players because it might be a violation of the salary cap provisions.

Crosby lives with Lemieux, the Penguins’ owner. Ovechkin, meanwhile, went out and bought a house for himself, his brother and their parents a few blocks from the Capitals’ new training facility.

Apparently, the league isn’t paying attention to that.

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