It usually happens to me early October, Hockey Night in Canada on the little television upstairs, Maple Leafs home to Tampa Bay maybe. Colour man Don Cherry pitches his first mega-snit of the year, tells the kids at home that hockey players should be manly warriors and not visor-wearing Franco-sissies, and my teenaged daughter leaves the room because I’m shouting and shaking so much she can’t enjoy Vincent Lecavalier’s post-goal hug with Martin St. Louis. This year, though, my first rage came late, and Dandy Don didn’t start it.
Another network—the usually relevant TSN—recently commissioned a poll to track Sidney Crosby’s relative celebrity status in Canada. He’s likely the best hockey player in the world, they figured, but does that make him a cultural icon? Quiet the irritated voice in your head shrieking why why why would anyone waste the time of 1000 (500 men, 500 women) busy folks. On a list of Can-stars of all ilk—actors, musicians, celebs—Sid finished #6, between Avril Lavigne and Nelly Furtado and a couple behind Wayne Gretzky. (Even though they didn’t ask anybody in Quebec—huh?—Celine Dion was still #1.) On its own, the poll seems a silly and undignified way to treat athletes, but not enough to make me shout and shake.
But then: “In a game dominated by male fans,” says the report’s voice-over, and my mad-o-meter starts to rise, “it’s no surprise that men appreciate Crosby’s play with the Pittsburgh Penguins.” Men, ya see, know what it takes to finesse circus-assists from your knees while demon d-men hack your Nova Scotian face with sharp sticks, or to use your impossible quadriceps to power through a surly Slovakian centre’s desperation backcheck. Because men get it. They know stuff. They dominate the game with their amazing hockey sense.
And women? They who make up close to half of ticket buyers, depending on where you find your stat? “Crosby’s popularity is surprisingly high among women.” Cue the cute blonde on the street: “He’s young, he’s hot, he’s got tons of money…” she says. And cue the pretty gossip girl-slash-cultural critic from Entertainment Television: “You know what?” she sporty-spouts, “Youth and wealth are powerful aphrodisiacs.”
Back to HNIC. The Canadian public broadcaster is doing fine work to respect female fans and to acknowledge that women watch the game, understand it, are passionate about NHL hockey and its players, and get it from the inside, too: women play. Cassie Campbell—of the gold-medal-winning 2002 Olympic team—interviews players rinkside and gets them to seem personable; between periods, we get on-ice lessons with a veteran player/coach drilling pre-teen co-ed players. The goalie usually has her hair ponytailed. For a league desperate to woo new fans and re-stoke its old ones, this approach to broadcasting seems not only sensible, but strategic. There’s plenty of game for everybody.
Do women enjoy the next-door handsomeness of hockey players? Do men see in Crosby the boy they couldn’t be or the son they never had? Of course, and vice versa. Fans choose athletes not only for talent and competitive star-power, for their ability to bring home the Cup. They also align themselves with character. In Vancouver, veteran Trevor Linden sets the standard for civic duty and humanitarianism, and men admire him as a gentleman and a saint who raises his game for the playoffs. He’s also the one guy women from 14 to 90 would marry in a minute, providing he quarterbacks the 5-on-3 kill, wins every draw from Joe Sakic, and doesn’t stiffen those curls with too much gel. Drafted into the city at 18, Linden has grown up in front of fans for almost two decades and has shown skill, grit and heart on the ice. His hand-eye may be on the downslide, but his appeal is still complex and important.
One day, Crosby’s appeal will be, too. In the meantime, those who profit from the game and its #1 draw are a little too desperate to assign legendary status to a kid so young his whiskers droop.