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NHL face Crosby finds his lockout voice

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 10:36 p.m.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby meets with the media following the NHLPA meeting at Marriott Marquis Times Square on Sept. 13, 2012 in New York City. Getty Images

The Kid picked up hockey after the last NHL lockout.

Sidney Crosby's task is tougher during this one.

He is the most recognized face of the NHL and the most far-reaching voice of its Players' Association — a man who must think big picture but also stay on message during a two-month lockout that has blocked his presumed triumphant return from two years of concussion hell.

“It's been tough because you have to try and understand both sides, but on top of that I'm a player,” Crosby said. “Being all these things combined, and I'm a fan too, you have to try and weigh all that.

“I've really tried to understand everyone's position. That's why, after doing that, it's been pretty frustrating — because I really believe this could have been an easier process.”

The NHL will return eventually — group negotiations will resume Monday — and at that point, it will turn to a formula more proven than its lockout-for-gains methodology:

Sell Crosby — to diehard Canadian fans that marvel as his quick wrists, to casual American observers that know his name, to New York-based corporate sponsors that love his looks, to citizens in the City of Brotherly Love that miss booing him.

“There is only one hockey player that everybody talks about, and that is Sidney,” said Lynn Lashbrook, founder of Portland-based Sports Management World Wide.

“More than any athlete in North America he is the face of his league, his sport — and that is what makes his participation during this lockout, his articulation of how he sees things going, so very important. He'll be the guy who has to bring hockey back when this is over, so he should be having his say right now in this moment that has a lot of us scratching our heads.”

The NHL lacked proven, reliable draws upon its return from a canceled 2004-05 season.

Mario Lemieux still skated for the Penguins, but his second act as a player was clearly into its final scene, and he was more identifiable as an owner. Wayne Gretzky, the most famous star in hockey history, was a first-year coach with Phoenix.

Lemieux was Crosby's landlord. Gretzky had predicted Crosby might break many of his NHL records.

Within two years of Crosby's NHL debut, which coincided with the league's post-lockout return, he was a scoring champion, MVP and the only player in the sport that had Madison Avenue appeal.

His endorsement deals, reported to total $2.2 million in 2011, were not regionally specific to Canada and/or Pittsburgh, but global because of brands such as Pepsi and Reebok.

Crosby cut through a perceived anti-NHL bias as Penguins highlights occasionally appeared in the A-block on “SportsCenter.” Super Bowl champion Steelers players wore his No. 87 jersey while attending Penguins playoff games. NBC turned a one-off outdoor game near Buffalo into an annual extravaganza targeted for big markets such as Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia because of the snowy shootout goal Crosby scored in the 2008 Winter Classic.

This past week Crosby spent four of five days carefully toeing a line while opining on a labor dispute that has bathed owners and players in a dark light — a war for which he, unlike Lemieux and Gretzky previously, has accepted frontline battle.

There was a day this month when Crosby stood behind Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr at a Toronto news conference, then returned to the Sewickley guest house owned by Lemieux. Crosby is staying there and at the Downtown apartment of a friend while his Sewickley house is being constructed.

Crosby's conundrum is best exemplified on the free agent matter.

He believes a player should test the market as soon as possible, but he never wants to check it out for himself. That is one reason he signed a 12-year, $104.4 million extension a year before his current Penguins contract expired — and now his union is fighting to restrict max contract limits that owners insist is necessary for the NHL to prosper.

“It's like an only-lose spot for Sid,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He is our face, but he will have to be their face. Everybody wants to hear what he has to say, especially now, and everybody will look at him when we come back because when you think of the NHL, you think of Sid.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rrossi@tribweb.com or 412-380-5635.

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