Peter Diana, Post-GazetteThe Penguins' Sidney Crosby holds his 100th career point puck last season.
On the first day of Penguins training camp last year, Sidney Crosby blended in with the pack except for one subtle detail. He was wearing a black helmet while every other player on the ice was wearing a white one.
The easy explanation was that the white model hadn't arrived yet from the manufacturer. But the message was that this gifted young man with a passion for hockey and a drive to excel was going to stand out, even in the most pedestrian of circumstances.
The expectations heaped on his 18-year-old shoulders were weighty enough to make his skate blades break through the machine-made ice. But by the time he faced his final media scrum in the season finale last April 18 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Crosby had provided a reason for Pittsburgh fans to keep watching even if the Penguins' overall performance provided plenty of reasons to turn away.
By scoring 102 points, he eclipsed the Penguins rookie record established by Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, the man who had saved the franchise twice -- once from its own futility and once from bankruptcy.
Crosby also became the youngest player ever to compile that many points. Dale Hawerchuk, also a Hall of Famer, scored 103 in 1982-83, but he was 101 days older than Crosby when he reached that milestone.
"Individually, I was pretty happy with the way things went," Crosby said in summing up his first season. "But if you look on the other side of it, I also want to win. I'd probably trade a few of those [points] for some wins and a playoff spot."
The only expectations Crosby heeded were the ones he placed on himself. Simply, they were to give his best every time he was on the ice and to make sure he contributed his best to helping the team win. Which is why his own summation of his season was spiced with mixed feelings.
"My whole life, I was kind of the youngest guy on my team. It was kind of unique I was able to do it and be the youngest, because that was something that was repeated to me a lot. But I was always told that age is just a number," Crosby said. "You're only a rookie once. By no means did I think about getting 100 points or a certain point total coming into the season. Once it became near, I thought it would be a nice feat. I just tried to have the best finish to the season I could and have no regrets. In a way, it helped motivate me a little more. But honestly, it wasn't something I was thinking about."
As it turned out, Crosby wasn't the league's top rookie. That honor was won by Washington's Alexander Ovechkin. And it was anything but a trophy season for the Penguins, who finished in the cellar.
Still, a brigade of Zambonis cannot erase the marks Crosby left on the ice during a rookie season baptized by blood, chipped teeth and dazzling displays that produced disbelief even among seasoned hockey people.
"You rub your eyes," said Michel Therrien, the second coach the Penguins employed last season, following one of Crosby's highlight-reel assists. "He does things that few players can."
The answers to what is next for Crosby and the Penguins start to come on Thursday when the rival Philadelphia Flyers visit to open the regular season. It was the Flyers who cast aspersions about diving -- the hockey equivalent of being soft -- last season. Peter Forsberg, a player to whom Crosby is often compared, even made a diving motion with his arms during one game. But in the eight games between the two teams, the only diving penalties called were on Philadelphia's Sami Kapanen and Derian Hatcher, the defenseman who split Crosby's lip and rearranged three of his teeth in a game Crosby won with an overtime goal.
Labels get tossed around with ridiculous regularity in sports, where those who stand out are accorded the celebrity status of rock stars.
In Crosby's case, he was touted as The Next One from the time he was 16 after none other than The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, said he might have a shot at his records.
He was also dubbed as The Savior not only for the Penguins but also for the NHL, which had relegated itself to the status of a niche sport in the U.S. with its clutch-and-grab drabness.
"He's a breath of fresh air for the NHL. He's tremendous for our game," Gretzky said on a visit to Pittsburgh last year.
"He probably has more pressure on him than I did because of the extra media, but he handles the pressure as well as anybody. He's been under the microscope. He understands what everything is about," Gretzky added.
And what stands out about Crosby?
"His vision, his work ethic. He sees the ice extremely well. He passes the puck extremely well. He loves coming to the rink. He's mature beyond his years. He's way more mature than any 18-year-old I've ever been around," Gretzky said. "How can you get a better combination than that?"
Like Gretzky in hockey, Tiger Woods in golf and Michael Jordan in basketball, there are athletes who not only raise their play when the spotlight is white-hot but also transcend their sport. Crosby's impact extended far beyond the dasher boards.
Endorsement contracts from Reekbok and Gatorade made Crosby a multi-millionaire before he entered the NHL.
After the Penguins won the lottery for his draft rights but before the puck dropped on the reborn NHL, the team sold more tickets than it had during the 2003-04 season. Despite a dismal season, the team led the league with a 33 percent increase in attendance.
Sales of merchandise at the team store also shot up about 30 percent because of him, and Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward attended hockey games wearing Crosby's No. 87 jersey, a tribute that Crosby returned by waving a Terrible Towel on the ice.
Young ladies squealed in Crosby's presence as if he were Elvis on skates. Hand-made placards appeared in hockey rinks that read: "Marry Me, Sidney"; "Future Mrs. Crosby"; "Give Us A Goal and I'll Give You A Kiss." One that was hoisted the night he scored his 100th point while he exchanged unpleasantries with the Islanders' Miroslav Satan asked him to go to the prom.
During his first trip to Toronto as a Penguin, in a scene reminiscent of The Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night," Crosby was chased by a fleet of autograph hounds in cabs. In Montreal, a wave of autograph seekers almost swamped the team bus. A similar scene played out just days before when the team practiced at a rink in Castle Shannon.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Tom McMillan, the team's vice president of communications who routinely arranged group media sessions to meet the demands for Crosby's time. "It was never like this even for Mario."
A star from the start
Observations made during last year's training camp were telling.
One came from Mario Lemieux when an interviewer suggested that Crosby wouldn't be the biggest star on the Penguins roster as long as the Hall of Fame captain, team owner and landlord was on the ice.
"He might. He has a chance," said Lemieux in one of the earliest indications that the torch was being passed to a new generation.
"I know how good he is. Nothing surprises me," Lemieux added. "There's no weaknesses. He's a great skater. He's strong physically. His first couple of steps are very quick. You can get away from people when you skate like that. He's taking to the game very well. I think he always knows what he's going to do with the puck before he gets it. Anytime you can do that, you have a big advantage."
Another prophetic perception, offered when training camp moved to Wilkes-Barre, came from Pierre McGuire, the hockey analyst who was the assistant coach when the Penguins last hoisted the Stanley Cup.
"He's the ultimate apple-polisher. He's addicted to being good. Wherever he's played, he's been the best. He accepts that mantle. He wants it. He gets it. He's legit," Mr. McGuire said. "He's going to be the measuring stick for every young player who comes into the league from now on."
Crosby started making lasting impressions the very first time he laced up skates as a 3-year-old when his father escorted him to Nova Scotia's Halifax Forum, a warehouse-like venue where the pigeon droppings that rained from the rafters to the ice were scraped off with shovels.
For one thing, Crosby's ankles never bowed when he skated. And when toys were tossed onto the ice for the kids to play with, Sidney always grabbed the plastic hockey stick.
"I didn't have to teach him to hold it. He just picked it up naturally," said his father, Troy Crosby, once a goalie in the Montreal system. "I never had to encourage him to play. You could tell he had talent, a gift. He had a passion for the game too."
Almost from the time young Crosby played novice, atom, peewee, bantam and midget hockey, he was so good that he was moved up to play against older competition. He gave his first newspaper interview with he was 7 years old.
"From the time he was a kid, he played up to the competition. I told him to always challenge yourself to be the best. Don't settle for being ordinary. That was just my philosophy," Troy Crosby said.
"He never wanted to be the next Wayne Gretzky or the next Mario Lemieux. He wants to be Sidney Crosby. He's comfortable with who he is. He's not just playing hockey. He's playing to be the best he can be," he added. "He hates to lose. Hates it. He's his own worst critic. He's always trying to get better."
After scoring his first NHL goal in his first home game, Crosby autographed his game jersey this way: "To Dad: Thanks for helping me live my dream."
Hockey genes came from both sides of the family. Trina Forbes Crosby's brother and a nephew played professionally.
When younger sister Taylor was born, Sidney asked why he was the only one in the family whose first name didn't begin with a T.
"Because you're special," his mother told him.
It wasn't the last time he heard the word.
Brad Crossley, one of Crosby's coaches in the amateur ranks, spotted something extraordinary early on.
"I've never met a person or a player as driven as him. He just wants to be the best in everything. To talk about Sidney Crosby fills your heart," Mr. Crossley said. "I think he was made to play hockey. He has an innate ability that can't be taught. He's a hockey artist. He can do things others can only dream of."
But a gritty side also developed. At its essence, hockey is a game played on the micro-edge of steel blades, a game of speed, skill, passion, lip-splitting violence and mental toughness. Anyone who is the best player on a team can expect confrontations with opponents determined to test them, whether it's in the NHL or the major midget leagues.
"He's played through slashes that would break any normal person's arm. It was vicious," Mr. Crossley said. "But he plays better after he's hit. It drives him more. There have been and always will be naysayers. But he likes to prove people wrong."
Crosby grew up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, a tidy community of 30,000 where the streets run in alphabetical order and where he bought a house in the off-season. Technically, the town is part of the provincial capital of Halifax, where the British built a fort atop Citadel Hill to protect the harbor.
Crosby trains on that hill, running up and down and around the sides because so much of hockey involves leaning one way or the other on skates. When he was 14, he improved his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.8 to 4.3 seconds -- the equivalent of wide receiver speed in the NFL, according to Andy O'Brien, his former personal trainer.
"I've always said that he was born to be a hockey player. He's just got that natural ability," said Mr. O'Brien, now the strength coach of the Florida Panthers. "He's not designed for one specific thing. He's designed for everything. He's strong. He's hard to knock off the puck. He's got good balance. He's got tremendous speed and acceleration. And he's worked at each component to make them better. He's never, ever taken anything for granted. "
In Crosby's childhood bedroom, which was adorned with Montreal Canadiens' wallpaper along with posters of Lemieux and Gretzky, there is a framed text from Oliver Wendell Holmes that reads: "Make it happen. Greatness is not where we stand but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But sail we must and not drift. Nor be an anchor."
If Crosby plays for another 20 years, it's hard to imagine a more eventful season than his first.
The team lost with such frequency that coach Eddie Olczyk was fired, and general manager Craig Patrick was dismissed after the season. At 40, Lemieux was afflicted with a heart ailment, announced the team was up for sale and then retired for good. Winger Ziggy Palffy, one of several big-name free agents brought in and one of a seemingly endless number of linemates, quit on an eight-figure contract and went back to Slovakia. Crosby was left off the Canadian Olympic team. Frictions were noted in the locker room. The lights flickered in the Mellon Arena, and the franchise cannot say with certainty what its address will be in the future.
But Crosby's reaction to the tumult is the reason why some say his greatest asset is the five inches of space between his ears.
"A lot of different things have happened, but that's why you don't go into a season with any expectations. There are things you can't always prepare for. That's hockey. That's life," Crosby said one day last March.
"If you think about what could happen or what may happen, your energy's not in the right place," he added. "The game hasn't changed on the ice, and I don't think it ever will. I came here to play hockey. That remains my job and my focus."
Drop the puck. On to Chapter Two.
Some of the fresh faces of the new Penguins, clockwise from top: GM Ray Shero, Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin.
Click illustration for larger image.
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Dave Molinari examines the Penguins' roster and the questions that figure to define the team.
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Robert Dvorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1959.