In January 2011, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that Sidney Crosby was out with a concussion. At that point, nobody knew that the NHL had likely lost the face of its league for the better part of the next year.
Now, with Crosby’s career in doubt, the NHL must search for its next poster boy.
This is someone who is not only talented, but plays the game in way that gives him respect among fans and in the league. He must make his team better, while personally garnering national spotlight.
After the lockout, Crosby helped put hockey back on the radar of sports fans. He showcased to the regular person exactly how exciting the NHL can be and the talent players possess.
Thus, finding someone to fill his hole will be difficult.
For starters, outside of Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin is likely the most familiar name for many fans. In many respects, though, he is the anti-Crosby. Ovechkin carries himself in such a way that gives an heir of selfishness and superiority.
He is one of the best pure scorers in the league and he will not let you forget it.
That kind of attitude is not what the NHL needs as their face. They should have someone who is an ambassador for the game as much as an individual talent.
Another option could be Steven Stamkos from the Tampa Bay Lightning. At 22 years old, Stamkos is tremendously skilled and will likely have a long career in the league. Not only that, but much like Crosby, he is multi-talented on the ice.
His 114 career goals by age 21 were the fourth-most in NHL history and this year he has lit the lamp a league-leading 37 times. Yet, he is also capable of making his teammates better as he is second in the league in points and has 25 assists.
The problem for him, though, is that he plays in an nontraditional hockey city. Crosby was popular partially because he played for the Pittsburgh Penguins, an organization with rich history that regularly receives national media coverage. Plus, with former players in the Hall of Fame, it was easy to make comparisons between him and some of the all-time great players.
So, unless he leaves Tampa Bay, Stamkos is not the ideal choice.
This leads to another rising star, Jonathan Toews. As a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, Toews has won a Stanley Cup and owns 142 goals and 177 assists in his four-year career. Plus, he has been used on the cover of EA Sports NHL 11 and his jersey is in the top five in sales.
Toews is the face that the NHL desperately needs.
His skill is enough for his name to be established in the sports world; while his humble character endears him to the common fan. Additionally, playing with the perennial playoff-contending Blackhawks, he has the opportunity to regularly showcase himself and the game on the national stage.
In today’s sports world, every league must have its identifiable faces. It is essential for the popularity of a sport for there to be that individual who can immediately catch the public’s attention. When someone mentions the names Tom Brady, Derek Jeter or Kobe Bryant, everyone knows exactly who they are, their sport and their team.
With Crosby’s prolonged absence, the NHL has lost that name recognition.
Without him, media and casual fans are being given the opportunity to turn their focus elsewhere. For the health and interest of the sport, the NHL needs Toews as its face to prevent that from occurring.
Regular hockey fans know the standout players on their favorite teams and will continue to support them and the league. However, a sport can only grow if it attracts new fans. Those fans arrive because there is an exciting and entertaining product on display.
Crosby was a main piece of that product and Toews now needs to be.
For the first time in its history the NHL averaged more than 17,000 people per game in the 2007-08 season. Since then attendance has not dropped below that level.
Hockey is at its all-time high in popularity.
Instead of simply relishing in the current state of the league the NHL must continue to promote itself through Toews. The Blackhawks are a successful and recognizable team and he is their talented leader.
In a sport whose season competes with the NBA, a league that thrives based on individual performance and recognition, Toews will not allow the NHL to fade into the background. It is already considered the last of the four major sports, but that does not mean it can’t continue to improve and grow.
With Toews the NHL can once again be associated with an entertaining, young player who represents the game and everything it offers.