One of our producers sent an e-mail Thursday morning with the subject heading: "Crosby and Cooke." There was no major news in the content, just the fact the two were on the ice together for an optional Pittsburgh Penguins skate.
But glancing at the note, it hit me that this could really be the subject heading for the entire NHL season. "Crosby and Cooke"-- the two time-capsule images of hockey, 2010-2011.
This is the time of year when every analyst/columnist/blogger weighs on what kind of hockey season this has been. Guilty (it's an easy topic).
I've already heard several opinionists say this was The Season of Blah — not enough compelling stories, and a huge letdown after last year's Olympic rush.
Not sure I buy that. We've had: The Amazing Sedins (rhymes with The Supremes for a reason), the wild season-long race in the middle of the Western Conference (where separation from the pack meant a 2-point lead), the Tim Thomas comeback (2nd Edition), the polarizing PK Subban (has any player been so loved and so loathed so... early?), and other poetic performances like Corey and Carey (Perry and Price), Skinner-Grabner-Couture-Calder?, Boudreau on HBO, Stamkos and St. Louis, Reimer and Rinne, Lucic and Lemaire, Iggy rediscovering his pop.
But in the end, this season will likely be defined by, and remembered for, the actions and subsequent inaction of those two Pittsburgh Penguins.
What Crosby was doing before he went down was magic, even by his ridiculous standards. His 25-game point streak was the single most dominant long stretch of hockey any player has had in the last decade (though Perry's last few weeks is giving him a run). The Hart and Art Ross engraver was already at S-I-D-N.
Since I don't root for any one team, I always judge the most compelling current NHL storyline by what game I end up watching on Centre Ice when there are 12 to choose from. I spent a lot of time with the Canucks this season. But during November and December, our TV would always end tuned to the Penguins, no matter who they were playing. Must-See-TV. Must-See-Sidney.
And when it became clear the best player in the game would be gone for a while, NHL '11 (the league, not the video game) instantly became a whole lot less fun. Head-shots and concussions were an issue before Crosby went down. They became THE issue after.
Which made Cooke's antics all the more embarrassing. In what we hope (but still doubt) will be a tipping point on head-shot tolerance, he delivered a clear-cut, non-debatable, brainless, elbow to the head of the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh. It happened just weeks after he served a four-game suspension for another dirty hit, and just days after his owner and general manager begged the league to crack down on that very kind of garbage.
I'm guessing the math on his suspension went something like this: three games for the hit, another three games because it was serial driller Matt Cooke, and the rest for sheer stupidity of timing (Section 143b: The Dumbass Clause).
(Not that it was surprising. I did a random text poll of a dozen prominent NHL players last year, asking which player they least respected in the game. Cooke got seven votes.)
So now here we are. And here they are. Crosby and Cooke, skating together, an unlikely duo to be hanging out with the Black Aces. And yet suddenly they are somewhat reliant on each other.
Cooke desperately needs Crosby to come back sometime in the opening round, to give the Penguins their best chance to advance. Remember, he's suspended until Round Two. Playing again this season might be Cooke's best chance to salvage what little is left of his reputation.
And if Crosby does come back, he could certainly use Cooke, an efficient penalty killer and decent secondary scorer, if his Penguins are to have a chance at their second Stanley Cup in three years.
So the story of the season rolls over into the playoffs, as we wonder if either, or both, will play hockey again this spring. It's a bit of a quandary for those fans who are Penguins-neutral. Do you root for them because you'd love to see #87 return and make another run? Or against them because you don't want #24 to have that chance?
And so we wait on Crosby and Cooke. The face of the game and the face of its shame.