Let me start by saying that I am not a believer in conspiracy theories, and that I'm usually the first to speak up in defense of Gary Bettman and the NHL whenever somebody starts the "Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are the league's pet project" or the "Gary Bettman's favorite son" talk.
As much as it pains me to even write the words "in defense of" immediately preceding the words "Gary Bettman," it's tough for me to get on board with the idea that a major business entity (like the NHL) might give preferential treatment to an individual player or team. Big corporations can't possibly be corrupt, you know what I mean? (Also, I don't watch the news and I might possibly live under a rock).
But then Bettman went ahead and issued these comments on Monday, and today they ran in an article on NHL.com (which mysteriously vanished from the site's main headlines sidebar already in what must be, like, a total coincidence):
"The level of passion, emotion and gamesmanship can never be overestimated," Bettman said. "I think people who follow the game closely understand it's just noise. My guess is, Sidney Crosby is still the most popular player and has legions of fans in all ages in multiple countries. The fact that somebody might take a potshot, I guess, is the price of greatness."
I had two immediate reactions to that statement. The first was that this was all just a marketing gimmick set up to pump up the official, NHL-licensed Sidney Crosby biography "The Price of Greatness," to be released immediately following Crosby's future retirement. That's not a real thing (yet!) but man, it sounds so very right.
Above: Teaser cover art for "The Price of Greatness." Reserve your copy today at nhl.com/penguins
The second reaction was that this seems a little out of line on the part of the Commissioner and the league.
Sure, everyone from NHL coaches to respected analysts (haha!) such as Mike Milbury and Don Cherry has been getting on Crosby and the Pens over the last few weeks, but does that really merit this type of official response from the NHL?
We expect the league to defend its guys, especially its stars and especially especially when it's known inflamatory figures/jackasses like Milbury and Cherry doing the attacking. But wouldn't a simple "we don't condone the negative comments regarding one of our premier players, the NHL and its affiliates do not sanction the opinions of said media personalities/coaches/fans/literally everyone who isn't a Penguins fan" have been enough?
To be fair, most of the article (as posted on NHL.com) was Bettman and NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus talking about how much of an idiot Mike Milbury is (which we can get behind) and how they were glad Milbury apologized for what he said. But both Bettman and Lazarus also made sure to mention that Milbury's comments weren't made on NHL or NBC-affiliated programs, which means that technically, the league didn't really have a good reason to make any kind of statement.
It's not the same situation as with Ozzie Guillen in Miami (who, in case you missed it, confessed his love to Fidel Castro, and is also an idiot). Guillen is a league employee, and his remarks were not just politically incorrect, but offensive on a social level that transcends the sport. Milbury's and Cherry's remarks are purely sports opinion and couldn't be construed as offensive to anybody but Crosby and fans of the Penguins—and even then, they're offensive only in the context of the sport (rather than an "I just told a city populated by victims of a cruel dictator's regime that said dictator is the coolest dude" context).
The point is, it seems like Bettman went way above and beyond what was necessary here, and stuff like this only provides additional fuel for the "Crosby+NHL Forever" conspiracy machine.
By saying, "my guess is, Sidney Crosby is still the most popular player and has legions of fans in all ages in multiple countries," Bettman is turning a blind eye to the legions of fans in all ages in multiple countries who actually think Crosby is kind of a dick. And there are lots of those fans.
It's probably an overstatement to say this, but by continuing to go above and beyond what is necessary in defense of Crosby and the Penguins, Bettman and the NHL are effectively marginalizing everyone who isn't a Pittsburgh fan. And I'm no statistician, but I'm willing to bet the NHL's core fanbase consists of more non-Penguins fans than Penguins fans.
As much as the NHL wants Crosby to be one its heroes, he's perceived by just about everyone outside of Pittsburgh as one of its villains. That reputation might be unfair, and it's probably not really deserved, but it's the way people see it. Besides, sports leagues need villains. The NBA has Kobe. Major League Baseball has the Yankees. Major League Soccer has the fact that it's soccer.
Maybe it's time for the NHL to stop trying to tell the fans how to view Sidney Crosby, and just let the fans make that decision for themselves.
Until then, bring on the conspiracy theories.