Is Gabriel Landeskog the biggest Colorado hockey star since his countryman Peter Forsberg skated for the Avalanche? Locals can debate the point on preference, but by sheer volume of attention outside of the Rocky Mountain region the answer is a definitive YES.
For Avalanche fans there has been no shortage of appealing young stars gracing Colorado ice in recent years. But it takes nova-like stardom to attract the kind of national and international attention that Sakic, Forsberg and Roy garnered for Denver hockey.
The short list goes like this:
Paul Stastny isn’t flashy, but he won an NCAA Championship at the University of Denver before coming to the Avalanche. Staz is beloved for his defense and work ethic, but that doesn’t make headlines in New York. Matt Duchene was a hot name in his rookie campaign, but cooled off when he struggled in his sophomore season. Ryan O’Reilly is an offensive dynamo with a clutch gene that rivals Chris Drury’s, but he’s not even popular enough to warrant the Avalanche front office giving him the contract he so obviously deserves.
Enter Gabriel Landeskog, the youngest team captain in NHL history. Landy nabbed that noble distinction when he was named the new Avalanche captain way back in September at just 19 years, 286 days old. He beat Sydney Crosby by 11 days – a note that tells us the Avalanche front office may have been looking to grab headlines with the move.
Even if Landeskog was partly a political hire as the new Avalanche captain, anybody who has ever interacted with him gushes about his poise and maturity. The Swedish wonderkid grabbed the Calder Trophy last season for his superb play in every phase of the game, but he earned the respect of the league by acting and playing like a veteran in his rookie year.
Fans all over the world keyed in on the young left winger in the offseason. He is handsome, likeable, speaks spectacular English, and carries himself with a sort of passive charm that is at once disarming and commanding. There is no doubt he deserved the honor of captain, and it is doubtful that popularity will change his persona or his game.
Now comes the real trick… turning sudden popularity into lasting fame. Stardom can be a curse for a lot of reason. In pro sports fame makes a young star into a moving target for defenders.
Scoring consistently in hockey is tougher than in any other major sport to begin with because even the best scorers spend so little time on the ice. But the more people talk about a young player the more veteran defenders want to beat him down. Landeskog is now facing top defenders every single night and they want his head. Those guys are paid to stop people from scoring, but they take special pride in keeping hot young stars from scoring.
Such was the case when Sharks defender Brad Stuart targeted Landeskog in San Jose on Saturday afternoon with a raised forearm to the head. Stuart met Gabriel at the blue line, launching into Landy’s face. The play should have been whistled a penalty but wasn’t. Stuart should have been disciplined by the league, but the NHL announced this morning that there would be no suspension. This is a hit that the league insists it is trying to take out of the game, but that’s a lie and everybody knows it.
The head pop bloodied Landeskog’s nose, tweaked his knee, and briefly sent him to the locker room. Look for more of the same moving forward. Any playoff-caliber team will start off games against the Avalanche by trying to rattle its most dangerous young weapon.
Intelligent sports leagues instruct their officials to protect young stars from such dangerous hits, or at least level suspensions after the fact. The recent lockout preceded by a string of ridiculous dictates from league HQ tells us that the NHL is run by morons, though. So Landeskog will have to fight through it if he wants to score… and keep his place on the very short list of professional hockey players who have edged their way into the national sports media spotlight.
Luckily Gabriel has a solid team behind him, and his coach went on record after the game at San Jose saying that if the league won’t protect Landy then the Avalanche will. No doubt Joe Sacco has instructed his larger players to beat the ever-living hell out of anybody who crosses the thin line between good, hard hockey and dirty hockey. In fact, the acquisition of 6’6” 225lb enforcer Patrick Bordeleau may be the equivalent of the Avalanche hiring Landeskog and a host of other young Colorado players a veteran bodyguard to guide them through this season. Bordeleau pounded Stuart into submission after his dirty hit on Landy.
The bottom line, of course, is that Gabriel will have to improve upon his 22 goal 30 assist rookie campaign to keep his name in lights. He will have to do it against tall odds and tough competition. But to see Landeskog play – with the physical force of Forsberg and the deft shot of Sakic – is to experience greatness in youth. There may be no tougher road to stardom than the NHL, but Gabriel Landeskog has the skills and strength of mind to rise high and carry the Colorado Avalanche with him.