Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Raison d'être

We Can Win This.
But we have to want to win it.
We have to want it bad.

I wish there was some more eloquent to say it, but there really isn't. This series could go either way. Both teams have talent. Both teams have had lucky breaks. Both teams have made dumbass mistakes. What it comes down to tonight is grit. It comes down to Heart (as opposed to Hart). It comes down to plain-old wanting it. And I don't think there's anyone who wants it more than Sidney Crosby. Sure, he's tied for the lead in post-season goals, but he has yet to have a Big Game. I'm waiting for it. I'm waiting for him to come out, guns-a-blazing to prove that since he won't be taking the Hart or the Art Ross, he's decided to take home the Conn Smythe this year. Breaking new ground. Why not, eh?

If there is one player in all of professional hockey who has the power to single-handedly win his team a game, it's Sidney Crosby. I'm not just saying that because he plays for the Pens, or because I happen to like him, or because I want the Pens to whip the Caps tonight; I'm saying it because it's probably the only person in pro hockey about whom it can be said. I love Dany Heatley, but he can't win the Sens a game. Not without scoring. Not even, necessarily, when he does score. As much as I love Malkin, and man-oh-man do I love him lately, he doesn't have the same kind of unflappable focus that Crosby has.

Hockey is not Evgeni Malkin's raison d'être as it is Sid's. It may be something he loves, it may even be his top priority, but I doubt it consumes him the way it consumes his captain. If anyone really wanted to know why Crosby is still (apparently, at least) single, despite his good looks and his fame and his millions of dollars, all they have to do is read between the well rehearsed lines he spouts over and over in interviews. Hockey is his life. It is the love of his life. And winning the Stanley Cup is the one thing he wants more than anything.

It's like his university education, or law degree, or backpacking-around-the-world. It's the one thing he knows he has to do before he can even consider settling down. It's why I feel like he'll be the deciding factor tonight. He is a special breed of player, of person, a breed I am not necessarily a specimen of (however much I sometimes wish I could be), but one I appreciate the way you appreciate endangered species and exotic flowers that only bloom once every forty years.

Sidney Crosby is not perfectly unique, but he's a rare enough breed that you have to stop and stare. He's compelling. He has something everyone wants, even if they're not entirely sure what it is. He's like Bob Gainey. Not the Bob Gainey who's GM of the Habs, the Bob Gainey who played 16 years with the Habs. The Bob Gainey Ken Dryden played with. The Bob Gainey who prompted this:
While a team needs all kind of players with all kinds of skills to win, it needs prototypes, strong, dependable prototypes, as examples of what you want your team to be. If you want it to be quick and opportunistic, you need a Lafleur and a Shutt, so that those who can be quick are encouraged to try, and those who cannot will move faster than they otherwise might. If you want a team to be cool and unflappable, you need at least one Savard, to reassure you, to let you know that the time and the team needed to do what you want are still there. If you want a team to be able to lift a game, to find an emotional level higher than any opponent can find, you need players like Lapointe and Tremblay, mercurial players who can take it there. And if you want a team game, where the goal is the team and the goal is to win, you need a player with an emotional and a practical stake in a team game, a player to remind you of that game, to bring you back to it whenever you forget it, to be the playing conscience of the team. Like Bob Gainey.
Or Sidney Crosby.

Ken Dryden wrote that about the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s, a team who won four consecutive Stanley Cups (1976-1979). It many ways it may as well have been written about our Pittsburgh Penguins. We (today the Pens and I and every fan out there are a 'we') have quick, opportunistic players (Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz), we have have that cool, unflappable presence (Sergei Gonchar is inimitable, and having Bill Guerin around isn't hurting...), and we have those players who take the game to an emotional level. We have those in spades, but most notable are guys like Evgeni Malkin and Max Talbot and (increasingly, lately) Kris Letang, who, in moments of dire need show up and redefine the word 'clutch'.

Most importantly, though, we have that final element, the 'conscience of the team' as Dryden sumarizes so succinctly. For Crosby, the first goal IS the team. It's why Crosby gave Pittsburgh a hometown discount. It's why Malkin and Fleury and Staal and Orpik (and others) have done the same. Crosby is the leader. He jumps, they all jump. He plays like there's no tomorrow, they all play like there's no tomorrow. He charges into battle, they risk their lives to follow him. That's true leadership. That's TRUST.

The second goal is to win, and because Crosby has been so successful in achieving the first goal, the second goal seems that much more realistic. For everyone. They're a team, a great team, so close that they almost seem like a big family sometimes. You have Daddy Danny, who is, admittedly, a bit young to be a father, but has been doing a fine job of it so far. You have the big brothers, Sarge and Bill and Boucher; you have the middle children, Hal and Brooks and Rob and Mark and Feds; and you have a slew of little brothers all so close together, that you pair them off into sets of twins: Max and Dupes, Chris and Eric, Geno and Sykie, Tanger and Flower, and Tyler and Jordan. And then you have Dad's favourite. Everyone tries to ignore the favouritism, but there's always a golden boy.

In in the Pens family, it's Sid. Daddy Danny doesn't let him off easy though, because Daddy Danny expects a lot from his golden boy. And because of who Sid is and the kind of family he's got - the kind of brothers who don't hold it against him that he gets a ton of attention - he doesn't want to let them down. Sid cares about the whole family being happy, so they love him for his talent and his passion, and because he makes them all better than they would be without him. He brings them all together, and gives them all something they wouldn't otherwise have: he gives them all faith in themselves, as a team, as a unit, as one. He gives them conviction.

In hockey, very few games can be decided by one player because even the best players only spend a little over a third of the game on the ice. The reason why Sidney Crosby can single-handedly win a game? It's because he instills the entire team with the kind of infectious fire that burns in the pits of their bellies and makes them want it. They want to win. And Crosby convinces them of something that a lesser leader would not be able to; he convinces them that they can. If they stick together. If they are smart. If they don't get worked up.

They can do this. Tongiht, Crosby will lead the Pens into battle, and, if they fight smart, they can win. Tonight we'll see if they've got enough trust in their Captain. Tonight we'll see just how much his desire to win, not for himself, for for the whole team, has spilled over into his team-mates' hearts.

Tonight, we'll see if they've got faith.

Do it, Pens. I know you all have it in you. You all know you have it in you. Time to show Washington what makes a team a real team.

Oh, and that quotation from Ken Dryden's book?
It was on page 87 of The Game.
If we're looking for signs, I have a feeling that counts.


Jessclub7 said...

Have you ever read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell?

He has a ton of theories around why certain hockey players become successful and others don't. He goes a bit into why he thinks Crosby is more elite than other NHL players.

One of the things which struck me most was the 10,000 hour rule, which he said was the amount of practice someone needed to become really successful in their chosen field. He said that this was way more important than raw talent or other intangibles.

How many hours must Crosby have spent on the ice over the years?

KD said...

Holy. Crap. Page 87....Seriously?!


ali said...

Wow. Wow. Wow.

Page 87? Everything is coming together now...

I trust you Sidney Crosby. Bring this one home.

Val said...

Another sign besides toast, I see...if the pens would read this blog today that would give them some serious inspiration, as well.