Saturday, January 28, 2012

Crosby, Lemieux and dark echoes pulling towards inevitability

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

I'd like to talk about a young player who set the world on fire during his junior days in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Was the savior of a franchise when he was taken with the first-overall pick in the draft. Made an immediate impact by scoring 100 points on a bad team as a rookie. Had to take his lumps to establish his rep, but complained the whole way about how he was treated.

This guy eventually won a championship with top level talent around him, but saw his most productive years cut short by a variety of injuries and bad luck spreading out like ripples on a windswept pond.

Who am I? Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby?

The similarities are too eerie to ignore. That old black magic is creeping upon hockey in the Steel City and it's about to rob Pittsburgh of another link in a potential dynasty.

News released Saturday that Crosby apparently suffered fractures to his C1 and C2 vertebrae in addition to his concussions in January and December pretty much clinched it.

Time and rest won't quite cover it for the 24-year-old out of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. We need to get all voodoo up in here. Chicken blood and chanting to save his body and soul from imminent demise.

Where did it all start? Some old heads who put a ton of stock in respect for the game, capricious gods and testing the bounds of karma cite the second Mario was convinced to wear 66, the upside-down equivalent of Wayne Gretzky's 99.

More fuel to the fire was added as the injuries, primarily a debilitating back issue which flared up during the 1989-90 season and continued to plague him, thanks in large part to the emphasis on body contact and slowing down the pace of the action. At the time it was an ominous message from one of the greats:

"The advantage is to the marginal players now. They can hook and grab, and the good players can't do what they're supposed to do," Le Magnifique pontificated shortly before his first exit from the NHL, decrying the decline in play due to the neutral zone trap. "I talked about all the clutching and grabbing, how it was taking away from the great players in the league. It's to the point where it's not hockey anymore. It's like football on skates."

But it soon was framed as the spoiled Prodigal Son ruining the good will he accumulated by rescuing the league from itself by lacing up the skates once more.

"That's not what we're trying to sell to the fans," Lemieux said weeks into his initial comeback in 2001, complaining about Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire and Minnesota's overly defensive style of play.

Or how about this chestnut in the wake of that great brawl back in February between the Islanders and Penguins: “I just don’t know how anyone could participate in a league where the New York Islanders are allowed to play, in public mind you, against a team with the prestige and dignity of my Pittsburgh Penguins."

And let's not forget the flap over his defense of pre-reformed serial hatchet-man Matt Cooke. He just can't get off that high horse and zip his lips, even when it's obvious he should stop.

Now to Crosby, skittering down the same dark and twisted path as his mentor...

“(Derian) Hatcher got away with one, then the next shift I come out and get another one. I was surprised he got away with two. Obviously (the official) didn’t like what I said, so I got two minutes. My emotions got the best of me. It’s not something I’m going to make a habit of," said Crosby after a rude introduction to Philadelphia hockey in November of 2005.

But he didn't keep his promise.

"I'm not going to sit here and complain about playing in Stanley Cup finals and Olympic gold medal games, that's a good problem to have and you've got to deal with it,'' Crosby said after losing a home Game 7 to Montreal two years ago.

Wait for it..."I was stunned,'' Crosby said of his penalty for driving Josh Gorges into the boards 10 seconds into that contest which led to the Canadiens' first goal in that contest. "I don't know how that's a penalty 10 seconds into the game."

And my personal favorite, on "delaying the game" for hat clean-up: "People kept throwing hats," Crosby said after rival Alex Ovechkin posted a trifecta at home in a 2009 contest. "I was just asking if he could make an announcement to ask them to stop. I mean, the first wave came and then I think they were all pretty much picked up, and then more started coming."

It's like they're Arnold and Danny DeVito from Twins, eh?

Seriously, there is something to be said about accumulated debts and paying what you owe, and about history repeating itself.

Mario, I believe, is still having his account raided for his belief that he should be untouchable with his health in question in the latter part of his early career. and the fact that he had not one, but two aborted comeback attempts in the last decade. Sidney, who as I might point out, lived with Lemieux in his rookie season and was shepherded into the NHL by him, is now past that fork in the road but he's pulled himself down the trail with nothing but dark eyes peering out from behind gnarled trees.

This is not to say I wish either of them harm, but that they should be more acutely aware of the gravitational pull one is having on the other now that their words have an unmistakeable echo.

In any case, the Penguins released a statement on Saturday night, attempting to shed light on the situation:

"The diagnosis of Dr. Robert S. Bray, a neurological spine specialist based in Los Angeles, is that Sidney Crosby had suffered a neck injury in addition to a concussion. Dr. Bray reports that the neck injury is fully healed. Those findings will be evaluated by independent specialists over the next few days. The most important goal all along has been Sidney's return to full health, and we are encouraged that progress continues to be made."

OK. So the neck injury is healed? Great. Nonetheless, something else will come along, just as unexpectedly, but just as serious. It always followed Mario around and the shadows are hovering around Sid.

All it takes for this to clear up is for one or the other -- but preferably both -- to clam up when they feel they've been wronged. They've made their opinions as player and owner well known, now it's time to start quietly working for change.

If not, we'll certainly be shaking our heads not long from now at the prospect of another superstar talent gone from the game way too soon.

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