It started as a joke here at Deadspin, when Drew Magary called the Penguins the Ice Steelers. Naturally, I decided that it actually was the perfect name for my favorite hockey team and proceeded to only ever refer to them by that, modifying it slightly to fit with traditional Pittsburgh-ese to “Ice Stillers.”
But what’s special about the Ice Stillers is how incredibly un-Stiller they are, especially their star, Sidney Crosby. He plays beautiful, sometimes elegant hockey (name the last Steeler you’d call elegant). He complains to referees (Mike Tomlin would not approve). He complains to anyone who will listen (anarchy!). Sometimes, he gets accused of not giving 100 percent (someone get a Rooney to yell at him). He lives a reportedly boring life (insert Steelers player scandal of your choice here). He isn’t a gritty grit guy out of the sixth round who fought his way onto the team with “grit” and “determination” and “heart” and “double grit.” He was always supposed to be great! He just looks, well, pretty. He is utterly anti-Steeler, and thank God for it.
Like this moment, first pointed out by Barry Petchesky, where he makes a nearly impossible turn and pass and does it with the ease of just a guy walking down the street.
Or this goal from the regular season where he practically walks it up to the goalie and pokes it in with a motion so fluid it’s almost mundane.
Of course, now it’s time for his Olympics winner because of course I fully expect him to do one of these in this Stanley Cup Final*. To me it’s such a Crosby goal because he makes you think anyone could do it. Just a little flick of the wrist, right?
This isn’t on accident; after all, these are Mario Lemieux’s Penguins. At its best, Penguins hockey has been beautiful. I remember growing up, watching the Lemeiux-Jagr era runs with joy and frustration. Those Penguins never seemed to be winging it, especially on power plays when they constructed their setup and passed and passed and passed until the just the right moment when they wanted to shoot. I’d scream at the TV, “Just shoot it! Just shoot it!” When it worked, they seemed like cats playing their prey, enjoying the moments before the kill as much as the kill itself. When it didn’t work, it was no surprise when they were eliminated by the likes of the shoot-first-and-figure-it-out-later 1996 Florida Panthers.
That Crosby (like Lemieux) makes it all look so pretty is an accomplishment because hockey is so brutal. Hockey has its own dark legacy of concussions, misinformation to players about the risks, and nasty lawsuits showing disregard by the men at top for player safety. This is a sport where players still get labeled as and celebrated (though decreasingly so!) for being enforcers, where playoff injuries are downplayed with the laughable designations of “lower body” and “upper body,” where you can chant “fight, fight, fight” and that’s just the norm. It’s easily forgotten that a few years ago a pair of concussions led to rumors of Crosby’s retirement. Like football, much of hockey’s history is a celebration of just that, brutality in the celebration of manhood.
Hockey isn’t a beautiful game by necessity, though the best make it one, and I can’t think of any greater sign of rebellion than playing an inherently bruising contact sport with such sneaky grace and not giving a damn about how that looks to everyone else. Call Crosby a pretty boy if you like, whine that he doesn’t try hard enough, call him soft, fret that he should take more hits. But that’s also who he is, as a player, and unapologetically. He’s the ultimate anti-Steeler for a Penguins team that’s never really won any other way.