NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After finally emerging from the specter of a 2004-05 season lost to a prolonged work stoppage, the NHL launched a pivotal ad campaign in 2008 built around a group of star players it hoped could lead the sport into an exciting new era. The campaign featured Patrick Kane, Henrik Lundqvist and Dion Phaneuf, but is remembered mostly for a spot featuring a player who was about to take over the game.
Filmed around the time of Sidney Crosby's 21st birthday, the commercial starred the Pittsburgh Penguins captain just weeks after his team had lost in a grueling six-game Stanley Cup Final to the Detroit Red Wings. In the ad, Crosby comes to life in a photo from that series and surveys the devastated teammates scattered around him.
"This is a tough one, getting this close and not winning the Cup. But I know it will make our team stronger," Crosby says in the ad as his teammates remain frozen in suspended animation around him. "I never want to be in this photograph again."
Almost nine years later, the world's best hockey player has won the Stanley Cup twice. He has captured seemingly every title, award and honor in his sport and could hoist the Cup a third time as Pittsburgh enters Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday (8 p.m. ET) leading the Nashville Predators two games to one. In light of everything he has accomplished since he filmed the ad, it's fair to say that Crosby wasn't acting. If anything, that commercial was a mantra, a warning to the rest of the league of the dominating run on which Crosby was about to embark.
"It was within a month or two of losing [to Detroit]. I'm sure it was pretty fresh at that point," said Crosby this week. "Looking back, there was a lot of motivation there the following year."
Crosby looked plenty motivated the next season, finishing third in league scoring, with 103 points. He followed that with what remains the greatest playoff run of his career. Crosby finished the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs with 15 goals and 31 points, totals that remain career playoff highs, as the Penguins won their rematch against Detroit and the Stanley Cup, the franchise's first since 1992.
Crosby and the Penguins haven't lost a Cup Final since, and defeated the San Jose Sharks in six games last season.
If he and his team can take care of business against the Predators, Crosby will again fulfill his wish never to appear in that photograph ever again.
Prescient as the commercial seems today, the league was admittedly apprehensive about presenting the idea to Crosby so soon after the most devastating loss of his NHL career.
"No doubt, I was very sensitive to approaching him on the rawness of it because those offseasons are relatively short," said Brian Jennings, the NHL's chief brand officer and executive vice president.
"It was funny. We were talking to him and briefing him. He asked, 'What's the emotion you're looking for me to get?' I said, 'The line is going to be that you never want to be in this photo again,'" Jennings continued. "He said, 'That didn't happen that long ago, I can get right back in that emotion.'"
The short shoot took place in New York City with Crosby standing against a green screen. He wore full Penguins gear with an earpiece under his helmet so that the director could communicate with him during what little time they had to film.
As he's done with practically everything else he has tackled during his remarkable career, Crosby excelled.
"He's such a pro on set. He comes prepared," said Jennings. "We call him First Take Sid, because he will nail stuff right at the get-go."
Though Crosby's mug has become among the most visible in sport since he first entered the league, that particular period was a busy one for the new face of the league when it came to off-ice responsibilities. That year saw Crosby featured in major national campaigns for a number of companies, including Reebok and Gatorade. But it's the iconic 30 seconds in that photo that seem to have endured almost a decade after it was released to the public.
"I thought the concept was real unique," said Jennings. "I remember seeing it and thinking, 'Wow.' I think the fans had the same kind of response."
As easy as shooting the NHL commercial might have looked, the ache from the loss to the Red Wings still lingered for Crosby as he spent roughly 45 minutes filming the 30-second ad.
"At that point it was pretty fresh. I still believe what I said," said Crosby. "To be able to go to the finals the next year against the same team, it's pretty unique that way."
Defeating Detroit was Crosby's first signature victory, the initial big item on a remarkable list of accolades achieved during close to a decade of dominance. Before that first Cup victory, he had learned some valuable lessons during that previous year's playoff run, a run that ended just short of the ultimate prize, followed shortly thereafter by that ambitious declaration Crosby made in the commercial that countless people in the hockey world now remember as a bold prophecy.
"I remember the commercial. I remember thinking the same thing," said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, one of four players remaining from that 2007-08 Pittsburgh team. "He's right. That guy is right. He meant it."