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Field of Play

Why Sports Matter
edition:Hardcover
tagged :
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The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster

Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again
edition:Paperback
tagged : chess, essays
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Most Valuable

Most Valuable

How Sidney Crosby Became the Best Player in Hockey's Greatest Era and Changed the Game Forever
edition:Hardcover
tagged : hockey, sports
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Excerpt

Pittsburgh, April 2017

It was a too-familiar scene and a recurring nightmare: Sidney Crosby lying face down and motionless on the ice after landing on the wrong end of a shot to his helmeted head; teammates standing around him and then waving to the Penguins bench; a trainer running out to see if he was okay when everyone knew he wasn’t; the Penguins star helped to his feet, to the bench and down the hallway to the dressing room, disappearing from sight.

In those awful couple of minutes, my mind raced. Of course, like anyone who was watching this in real time, or soon after on replay, I thought of the immediate fate of a 29-year-old. I had met him just days after his 16th birthday; over the years, I had come to know people in his inner circle, those who had been there since the beginning, and I had worked dozens of his games, with the Penguins and on the international stage. I had been around for his first game as a junior player, and I was wondering (and not for the first time) whether I had just watched the last shift he’d ever play in the National Hockey League.

When I say that my mind raced, understand that, for the matter of my profession, there was little time. The inciting incident went down six minutes into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Washington Capitals at the PPG Paints Arena. The Caps had won the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record but the Penguins had swept the first two games in Washington and it looked like, once more, Crosby and company would own Alexander Ovechkin and company, a hero-and-nemesis thing that seemingly always came out in Crosby’s favour. With Crosby off the ice and receiving attention from the team doctors, there was still going to be a game story to write a couple of hours down the line. Still, before the puck would be dropped, there was time enough to do at least a preliminary taking of stock.

From its routine beginnings to the gloomy end point, the sequence was replayed in the arena: Crosby had been skating down the left side of the ice on a two-on-one with his winger, 21-year-old rookie Jake Guentzel, carrying the puck. The defenceman back was Matt Niskanen. Ovechkin was skating furiously in Crosby’s wake, but still a step or so behind, with Crosby bearing down on the Capitals net. Guentzel found Crosby with a pass and Crosby crashed the net. Ovechkin swung his stick in a desperate and reckless attempt to break up the play and clipped Crosby’s helmet. Crosby went into a speed wobble and his knee seemed to give. He went bailing by goalie Braden Holtby, where Niskanen was waiting, the shaft of his stick not quite six feet off the ice, ready to intersect with either the side of Crosby’s helmet or anything unguarded from the neck up. In real time—and even more on replay—it seemed to me that Niskanen intended to drill Crosby with a cross-check, maybe intending to hit his torso, but he wound up connecting with head and neck. Niskanen stood over the Pittsburgh captain like a hunter over his kill. The refs saw it the same way I did and handed him a five-minute major for cross-checking and a game misconduct.

While Crosby was being helped off the ice, I did a quick search of Niskanen’s history: a 10-year pro who signed with the Capitals in the summer of 2014. At an unimposing six foot one and just over 200 pounds, Niskanen wouldn’t really throw a scare into opposing forwards. He had never been suspended by the league and could never be accused of being a thug, much less a headhunter. In fact, you wouldn’t even think of him as a particularly physical defenceman at all—in 78 regular-season games, he had 32 penalty minutes. By position, that qualifies him as relatively peace-loving and risks him getting labelled as soft. A curious footnote here: Niskanen had played in Pittsburgh for three full seasons prior to jumping to the Caps. Was there anything to read into that, any hard feelings? Without any record or even hint of previous animus, you’d have to have a predilection for intrigue to read anything into that. Niskanen would be no more likely than anyone in the league to commit some sort of heinous act against any player, never mind the most decorated star of his generation. In fact, given all the aforementioned reasons, you’d presume he’d be less likely than most.

In the immediate aftermath of the felling of Crosby, the fans reflexively booed Niskanen but that only lasted a beat or two. When Crosby didn’t move, the booing gave way to a hush. In that split second, the world inside the arena was upended—as should have been expected, because it was very much an arena, and a world, created by the player who was lying on the ice. When Crosby arrived in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2005, he was billed as a franchise player, a centre that a team could be built around. No one quite billed him as a saviour, because whether the Penguins franchise could be saved was an open question.

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Cujo

Cujo

The Untold Story of My Life On and Off the Ice
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Hardcover
tagged : hockey
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Rémi la Rondelle

Rémi la Rondelle

Canadiens de Montreal
edition:Hardcover
also available: Hardcover
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