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Crosby, like Tebow, is the bridge between fans and non-fans

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Crosby returns to the ice for the first time in over 10 months as the Penguins take on the Isles. (Getty Images)  
Crosby returns to the ice for the first time in over 10 months as the Penguins take on the Isles. (Getty Images)  

Everybody should have a Tim Tebow, evidently, and we will now wait for your sigh of relief when you realize that this is not about Tim Tebow.

Besides, that's Comrade Doyel's department, and without the animal tranquilizer gun needed to dissuade him from a tightly held notion, we're fine with leaving that to him.

No, this is about Sidney Crosby, the NHL's Tim Tebow, and the drooly reaction to his return to the job.

The entirely justified drool, it should be added.

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Crosby's return after 10 months and change in the Scottish highlands of concussion recovery was much heralded, and of course he paid off -- hell, he pantsed the New York Islanders and the goaltender making his first NHL start, the redoubtable trivia answer Andres Nilsson.

But it was more the way his return seemed to mirror the Tebow phenomenon -- the waiting, the interminable waiting, the false starts and the doubt that it might never happen, and then the payoff that raises the subject beyond his mere mortal station.

The assumption the NFL needs Tebow, though, is as illusory as the notion that the NHL needs Crosby. The NFL is less predictable because of Tebow, and the NHL is more glitzy because of Crosby, but a funny thing happened while both were in their separate wildernesses.

The NFL rambled on in its money-generating godless way, and the Pittsburgh Penguins sold out every game and the NHL's TV ratings were actually quite good in Crosby's absence.

So "need" is the wrong word, especially as related to Crosby. The NHL likes Crosby because he is a talking point that allows hockey fans to talk to non-hockey fans, which is a Tebow-like construction itself. It's a way to expand the brand, if hockey's brand can be expanded.

And that too is important to remember. Hockey holds its own with an MMA fist, but those who don't immediately take to the sport find it eminently resistible. The most salient pro-hockey argument, that if you see one game live you'll love it forever, still requires breaking down the barrier of getting the reluctant off his or her couch and trundling off to the closest rink.

It's a strategy that doesn't really work often enough to make a real difference. But to get the casual fan to watch Crosby from the couch may convince that fan to watch Crosby again -- from the couch.

Thus, his return Monday night worked well to that strategy -- him showing his considerable masteries against a team almost uniquely unequipped to prevent him from doing so. He filled the screen and owned the ice and, well, just Crosby'd it up. He did what he needed to do by doing all he could.

Yes, like Tebow.

But maybe it isn't how Crosby materially benefits the game, but how much he simply makes the people who enjoy watching him feel so good about doing so. His gifts may actually be more visceral, and here the comparisons with Tebow end. Crosby does pretty much everything someone of his position can, and doesn't make his supporters get defensive about the things he cannot do, because the things he cannot do -- win the Vezina Trophy, drive a record lap on Top Gear, build a box girder bridge out of popsicle sticks -- have nothing to do with his job.

In short, Crosby doesn't create the rage of rebuttal that Tebow's football detractors have. In that way, he is angst-free, except if your team is playing his team on some given evening.

But he does make his fans go all gape-faced and slack-jawed just like Tebow's, and that is an inescapable fact. So it's true -- every sport should have a Tim Tebow, or a Sidney Crosby. Just because they so tug at your eyes.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.

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